Frank McParland is a Liverpool man through and through. In fact, let’s widen the lens. Frank McParland is a football man through and through.
A student of the game who has been involved with football at all levels from youth coach to team analyst to scout, team manager and now Academy Director of Liverpool Football Club, his passion for the sport shines brighter than the sun on the clear, mild winter’s day when I sat down to interview him in Qatar, where Liverpool’s under-18 team were taking part in the Al Kass International Cup.
With much emphasis placed on youth this season since the arrival of new manager Brendan Rodgers at Anfield and the gradual integration of a number of academy players from Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom to Jerome Sinclair, who became Liverpool’s youngest ever first team player last year, it was fascinating to be able to sit down with the man in charge of it all and discuss coaching philosophies, team analysis, scouting and the overall direction Liverpool are taking under the new regime.
Liverpool finished 8th at Al Kass in a 12-team field that included Real Madrid, Internazionale, PSG and eventual winners Fluminense, and McParland expresses satisfaction with the way the competition panned out for the team and his players.
“It’s very much like the NextGen Series. All the games we’ve had have been against foreign opposition. We’ve played with different linesmen and referees which is a challenge as well. Different formations, different cultures. It’s just part of, for a player who is going to be a top player, giving them this experience early. It’s going to develop them and accelerate what they do.”
McParland is in his second stint at Anfield, rejoining the club in 2009 to help Rafa Benitez restructure the academy having left in 2007. Despite there having been three different managers at Liverpool since Benitez’s departure in 2010 McParland says things have continued to run smoothly at youth level.
“Not a great deal has changed,” McParland confirms. “I’ve always reported to the manager and obviously reporting to Brendan (Rodgers) is fantastic for me because he’s very used to the youth system. He was brought up in Reading as academy manager and he was reserve team manager at Chelsea. So he’s done all the jobs that all our staff are involved with. So that’s the reporting line.”
“He’s heavily involved with the technical director Rodolfo Borrell, where they have meetings about philosophy and the way we want to play. The team in Qatar for example, Rodo worked out that we’d play 4-3-3 and it worked really well. Eventually they are getting it, the players.”
‘Philosophy’ is a word that regularly crops up when discussing Liverpool this season, with Rodgers trying to implement his own style and vision on a club that hasn’t quite lived up to the enormous expectations since nearly pipping Manchester United to the Premier League title in 2009.
But to suggest that this philosophy has been brought in by Rodgers alone would be to underplay the role Rafa Benitez played in restructuring the academy, something McParland confirms.
“When Rafa asked me to come back to the club in 2009 he was very keen on the academy having a certain philosophy and it was a Spanish philosophy that he wanted.”
“Right through the Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and now Brendan Rodgers era we’ve worked with this philosophy and it’s done okay because we’ve produced a number of players from it.”
“We pretty much have the same philosophy as Brendan. He likes players to keep the ball, he likes them to be comfortable in possession, a lot of pass and movement. Obviously he’s a great advocate of 4-3-3. And with having Rodolfo Borrell as our technical director, who has worked at Barcelona, who are probably the best 4-3-3 team in the world at the moment, it’s a massive help.”
“So you’ve got the manager who is really keen on 4-3-3 and working with the philosophy and he speaks all the time with Rodo. Rodolfo is then dealing with our coaches and our players, so it’s working very well.”
This clear, defined path from youth level to first team has been four years in the making at Anfield, but increasingly the signs are there that the seeds planted are beginning to bear fruit, something which clearly excites McParland, a Scouser with a warm love for the club.
“We changed a number of coaches, a number of physios, a number of fitness people and we got it to the way it is now,” says McParland, “and it’s working really well. I’m really happy with the medical staff, the fitness, it all helps.”
“The main restructuring I would say comes down to: we’ve got better scouts and I think we recruit a lot better, but we also have a philosophy, and the philosophy that we have with Rodolfo working every day with the players and coaches has just improved us so much.”
“I mean we’ve got Fernando Morientes (Real Madrid’s Under-17s coach) saying to me how we didn’t play like an English team. I think a few years ago people wouldn’t have said that. So we’re really happy with the way things are going.”
“It’s been a lot of hard work from Rodolfo and from the coaches and scouts and everyone involved but we’ve improved and we’ve got players into the first team. In fact, the first NextGen Series game we had was against Sporting Lisbon at Anfield, and nine players who started in that have played in the first team!”
Finding Anfield’s next stars
Liverpool’s current crop of youngsters offer reason for optimism to any Reds supporter, and the success of players like Sterling and Suso in stepping up to first team level has inspired everyone behind the scenes.
But who are next big players to look out for in Liverpool’s first team colours in the coming years?
“Well Jerome (Sinclair) has played in the first team so there’s one for you!” says McParland, diplomatically reluctant to single out individuals.
“I was really impressed with the young ones in Qatar. So the likes of Jordan Rossiter who’s still 15… I don’t normally single anyone out but I’ve just been really pleased with the way he’s adapted to it. He’s worked ever so hard and he’s going to be a good player.”
“The goalkeeper Ryan Fulton I think for me has been as good a goalkeeper as I’ve seen in the competition. He’s been really good.”
“I know now from being away with some of these players that there’s four or five out of this squad that will play in our first team, for sure.”
Of course, naturally, a player excelling at youth level doesn’t always guarantee he will translate that into making it at first-team football’s exalted level. So how do you ‘know’ a player will make it when you see so many at under-18 level, and how do you identify talent at that age?
Given all his years of experience from scouting to coaching to team analysis, it is a question I am keen to ask Liverpool’s Academy Director.
“You always think your best players have got a chance at a young age but no-one can say 100% that they’re going to play in the first team, no way whatsoever.”
“I think you have to know what your club wants and what profile of player or position your first team manager wants. You can do what you want at academy level but you have to feed your first team.”
“So if the manager wants overlapping full backs who are really comfortable on the ball, that’s the sort of full back you look for. Are they comfortable in possession? Are they athletic? Can they get up and down the pitch? All that sort of thing.”
“Take a central midfield player, for example. To play in England, if he’s an attacking player he needs to have vision, a good touch, he needs to be able to see things, good game intelligence. But in England a lot of it is also the mental side. They have to be real winners to play in the position. There’s a lot of traits that you look for.”
“So for me it’s – you are an academy, and you have your own identity as an academy – but you always want to please your first team manager. You don’t want to give him players that he’s not going to play in the team.”
Champions League-winning analysis
Although now the Academy Director at Liverpool, McParland has worn many different masks during his time at Anfield. One of them that holds fond memories for him is when he was in charge of opposition team analysis during Liverpool’s run to their famous Champions League win in 2005 and the final in 2007.
“It was very interesting but a bit of work though!” says McParland.
“When I used to do team reports, and it does seem a long, long time ago, the last ones I did were probably in 2007 in the Champions League final when we got beaten, what I always looked for is for outstanding players within the opposing team. I’d look at the formation. Then I’d look at how each component of the formation attacks and defends.”
“How does the goalkeeper defend, where is his starting position? How does the goalkeeper attack? Can he throw it? Can he kick it well? Distribution. All those things I’d look for.”
“And then I’d do the same thing with the back four. As a whole do they defend well? How do they defend and how do they attack as well? Then you’d look at set pieces, corners, throw-ins, everything like that. And when I was doing team reports we even then got it down to: do they water the pitch at half time?”
“We’d also do analysis on referees and we’d have a database – was the referee a homer? What was the pitch like? So there’s so many aspects of the game that you’d look at.”
“Anything that can give you an edge or the manager an edge. That little bit of information. Sometimes it might be ‘what is the surface like?’ Basic things like that. It was very interesting.”
Talk of that Champions League run inevitably leaves McParland in reflective mood, but despite the hard work and long hours involved he is keen to encourage anyone interested in following him down the path of coaching.
“It depends what you want to do, if you want to be a coach or an analyst, a scout or a manager, there are all different paths. But the main thing is to be a football anorak.”
“Watch everything that you can. Speak to people who are well respected and just live and breathe the game. You’ve really got to enjoy it.”
“Football has given me such a wonderful life and I’ve really been so lucky to be involved in it all my life. It’s a great career.”
Further reading: Interview with Liverpool’s Jordon Ibe and Jerome Sinclair