Exclusive: The importance of Harvey Elliott's family & being destined for the top - ex-coach provides the inside track on Liverpool starlet's development & grassroots concerns 🌟
Harvey seems to have impressed right from the very start in our conversation with one of his former coaches
It seems somewhat strange to speak about the promise of a player who has already proved their suitability to meet the challenge posed by the highest level of the game.
Despite being tipped to play a bit-part role with the Liverpool first-team following a highly successful loan spell in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers, Harvey Elliott defied expectations by starting three consecutive league games for Jurgen Klopp’s men following a brief cameo appearance in the opening clash of the season.
Sadly, a severe ankle injury would derail such early progress from the 18-year-old, consigning him to a lengthy spell on the sidelines in what should have been his breakout campaign at the club.
[Liverpool and Leeds United players watch on as Harvey Elliott receives medical treatment at Elland Road]
Elliott’s far from being one to mope, of course, with the footballer’s former coach, Sean Conlon, rightly drawing attention to his ex-protégé’s positive approach to recovery: “It’s so frustrating that injury. But all players go through some form of injury at some stage of their career.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s had this one at this time but you can see from Instagram how motivated he is to get back.
“The lifestyle he lives, he’s a great professional, he’s a great boy, very hard-working. He’s going to do everything that the doctors, the medical team, tell him to do.”
Many would reasonably argue that it’s too small a sample size to be drawing any major conclusions from, but there was certainly enough in Elliott’s performances against Burnley, Chelsea and Leeds United to justify the pre-season hype that had gathered a head of steam before a ball had even been kicked in the English top-flight.
Such was the severity of the injury that it deflated both sides present in West Yorkshire, rendering the remainder of Liverpool’s 3-0 away victory practically unwatchable - not that most had a mind to be concerned about anything beyond the injury in question.
Such was the positive nature of Elliott’s start to the 2021/22 campaign that there was a palpable sense of heartbreak across the red half of Merseyside with regard to the cruel timing of the setback.
One only needs to revisit Jurgen Klopp’s post-match comments to get a clear idea not only of how highly-rated the teenager is at Anfield but also how much of a blow this was deemed to be for the individual and Liverpool Football Club.
“We will be there for him and we will wait for him. He is a top, top player,” the 54-year-old said.
“We played a really good game until Harvey had to go; the whole team was shocked and we lost rhythm. That is normal, human.
“I spoke to the boys afterwards, we have to speak a little bit about the football, but Harvey overshadows it.”
Conlon, a part-time Chelsea scout, enjoyed a relatively short period of time working with Harvey Elliott (two years, to be precise), but it’s testament to the quality of the player that the experience was communicated so vividly.
“No one can say with an eight-year-old that they’re going to be a footballer,” he exclusively told EOTK Insider. “We don’t have crystal balls. But you have feelings with certain players and parents that you think that these ones have got a very good chance – I felt that with Harvey.”
The CEO of We Make Footballers has been actively involved in the development of young talent for well over a decade but is particularly well-placed to discuss the intimate details of Elliott’s early years in football from his time with QPR as the London outfit’s pre-Academy manager.
First contact with the now Liverpool midfielder came courtesy of a chance tip from another scout at Chelsea who shared details of the prospect’s impressive Surrey-based outfit.
“I took my QPR U7s to play Harvey’s team and we played them and Harvey stood out,” Conlon explained.
“He’s an April birthday, so he’s a lot smaller than maybe other kids at that age but he had a brilliant ability on the ball, excellent movement and I said, ‘I want him to come to QPR’. His dad agreed.
“He was training at some other clubs at the time but when he then came to QPR I offered him a contract on the very first training session.
“The process of signing for a club, that was U7s, so he still had another year and a half to make his decision on who he wanted to sign with and he was looking at lots of other clubs, he had lots of other opportunities.
“I think Scott, Harvey’s Dad, felt that he wanted to start him with a club that was going to really care for Harvey and give a lot of interest. I think he wanted him to stay hungry because Harvey’s Dad, he’s a very humble guy.
“That comes through with Harvey as well – I’m sure you’ll see that with lots that he does with charity work and you’ll always see photos of Harvey giving shirts to fans. Even when he had his injury he was there giving his shirt to the person next to him. They’re a really caring family and very hardworking.
“There were lots of factors of why they wanted to choose QPR as a club to sign with but I was really happy and glad that I got to work with him for those two years. An incredible talent.”
As one might expect, bringing Elliott onboard was far from being a straightforward process, with the young Englishman under pressure from other clubs to accept alternative offers.
“He had interest and trained with every club in London,” the coach added.
“He lived over in the Surrey way – so clubs like West Ham, although they probably would have wanted him, that would have been too far to drive.
“I think that travel was a factor in his decision in terms of why he went with QPR.”
In a world where brilliance can breed arrogance, however, Liverpool’s No.67 made himself stand out through a level of humility that seems far more befitting of a mature adult than an impressionable youngster with a taste for what could be.
“I remember with Harvey he was so polite – the politest boy from seven-eight years old,” the former QPR employee said.
“When you’re giving him coaching information, he would just stare at you. He would have this great eye contact where you knew your words were just going straight in and he was processing it all.
“But he was also, even at that age, he would decide if he wanted to go with that information or not. That’s the right way to be!
“You’re working with kids who are going to be better players than you when you’re a coach. So that’s the best way to be.
“You have to give these little geniuses ideas and then you say, ‘look, this is the way I would do it, or why don’t you think about this? Did you see that pass? Why did you choose not to do it?’
“Harvey would always give great answers. Very intelligent boy, very respectful.
“When you had his trust, he would want more information all the time – he would want to be better.”
The two-year period within which Conlon had to help aid Elliott’s development speaks volumes not only of the importance of the players themselves buying into the process of development but also of the family unit.
“No one can say with an eight-year-old that they’re going to be a footballer. We don’t have crystal balls. But you have feelings with certain players and parents that you think these ones have got a very good chance - I felt that with Harvey.”
[Sean Conlon pictured with a young Harvey Elliott (second row, first from the left)]
“It’s vital, it’s vital. Clubs are recruiting younger and younger now,” the scout said.
“We start the recruitment process – I’m also a part-time scout with Chelsea so I can speak with a lot of experience there – that the clubs will recruit from year one at school, U6, and that’s when they start going to development centres.
“They don’t sign contracts until halfway through the school year of U8. So they’ll be in the pre-Academy programme for about three years and then it’s a little bit like the X-Factor.
“A top Premier League club is going to maybe have 200 players in their Academy programme at the ages of year one, year two at school, and then they whittle that down until they get 16.”
The former Fulham Academy graduate’s father, Scott, played a particularly critical role in shaping his mentality from a young age.
“The parents are integral,” Conlon said.
“Not just for the parental support of getting them to the training sessions so they can get in their practice hours but they’re having to pay out because before you join the Academy you’re having to pay for training at all these places and to get to two hours of practice a day.
“So there’s financial support, travel support and then there’s when the child’s going through tough times how much the parent supports the child and keeps them motivated and keeps them in a positive frame of mind.
“They need to help the child avoid getting into negative habits.
“Reece James’ father talked about a period where he went to secondary school and when he went there he stopped having breakfast in the morning and then got in with a clan of friends who kept going to a chicken shop all the time.
“Suddenly Nigel, Reece’s dad, lost a bit of control there and now the kid is not having a very good diet. He lost his position up front because he lost his fitness, went into centre midfield and at 14 he lost his position at centre midfield and this all happened because the child started having bad eating habits. Then there was a whole confident issue due to the boy losing his position and form.
“So yeah, the parent has a lot of influence and you can see going back to Harvey, right from the very get-go, Scott, Harvey’s Dad, would do things like getting Harvey to go and say thank you to all of the coaches after training.
“He would ensure that he did half an hour extra practice after we finished the training session, he would get Harvey to pick up cones after training. All these little details that basically set Harvey up to have a great attitude from eight years old.”
[Aged 16 and 30 days, Harvey Elliott broke the record for the youngest player in the Premier League following a cameo appearance against Wolves in 2019]
As far as handing his son the right tools to build a solid foundation from which to act as a springboard for the rest of his playing career, there’s no questioning the positive impact this will have had in encouraging Elliott to welcome developmental opportunities with open arms.
The support didn’t end there, however, with the youngster going the extra mile to make up for deficiencies at Academy level with the help of his father.
When one considers the sheer promise the Liverpool starlet has shown already this term, prior to suffering a long-term injury, it’s not difficult to understand why Conlon truly prizes the influence of family.
“I do, I do. Because again in a key moment, and I’ll relate to the Reece James interview, there were times when Reece’s Dad said Reece shouldn’t play centre midfield, he should go and play right-back,” Conlon added.
“He organised the loan move to Wigan and there was a whole load of influence he had and that was really interesting hearing that.
“You have to navigate through obstacles as you go through this 15-year journey of becoming a footballer.
“Something similar happened to Harvey when he got to 13.
“He was always quite a small player and really credit to Fulham as an Academy that they could see the bigger picture, they could see the ideas that Harvey had.
“He might try an amazing through ball that might not come off well because he didn’t have enough power in his legs at the time. He might not have enough of a burst in speed when the pitch went to 11-a-side. But they didn’t care about that because they believed he would get the power and it would come.
“It was probably around 13 that Scott noticed these physical issues Harvey had and basically spent the entire summer, for about eight weeks, doing physical work. He told me, he said Harvey did ladders, speed work, power work, and he then came as an U14 almost as a different player.”
But what does the future hold for Elliott?
As far as this season is concerned, Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff will be hoping for an early return in the new year, though, if the treatment of Curtis Jones is anything to go by, there will be no rush to get the 18-year-old back in a kit and out in a competitive fixture before he’s 100% ready.
With Thiago Alcantara finally hitting his stride in the famous red shirt too, the teenager will have his work cut out for him to steal back a starting spot in the German’s first-choice XI.
“He’s gonna recover as fast as he can and then in terms of his potential, cementing a place in the Liverpool team is going to be really important and getting game time,” Conlon said.
“We’ve seen that with players like Phil Foden and Mason Mount, they need to learn through playing at that level.
“His ability, which will start coming through, his vision to see a pass and unlock defences, the execution of the pass, his dribbling ability and his ability to play in very tight spaces I think can take him to the very top.
“I expect him to play for England and I expect him to hopefully be part of a national team which is going to win things in the future.”
As inspiring a story as Harvey Elliott (amongst several others) is, however, we’re reminded of the many that fail to make the grade.
Those that make it to the English top-flight - of the likes of Elliott, Mason Mount and Phil Foden - court the limelight for obvious reasons, catching the eyes of fans and commentators alike with jaw-dropping performances domestically and beyond.
Which raises questions around those outside the glare of stardom and the quality of the support provided.
“It’s a topic that’s very important,” Sean Conlon said.
“There are inconsistencies because I think some clubs make so much effort in this area and follow best practices.
“Not every child can be a footballer so there’s always going to be an exit process.
“Parents have to take responsibility in some part. When they’re bringing their child into the Academy programme, helping them understand what they’re looking to benefit from the experience of being in an Academy programme – you’re getting this amazing training, you’re making friends, you’re having a wonderful experience that doesn’t necessarily last forever.
“Don’t build the child’s identity all around being a footballer and give them nothing else, so when they exit out of football they feel worthless and that they have no purpose or identity.
“So it’s very important for the parents to help with that, the clubs to help with that and a lot of clubs are putting that work in to educate players.
“In terms of what I know some clubs do in terms of the exit process, they will work hard to put videos out of the player to other clubs to help them get other options at other places, there will be follow-up phone calls to check in with them and see how they’re doing.
“I think that, in my opinion, I’d like to see the FA and Premier League look to govern this a bit better because at the moment clubs are left to do what they feel is right. A lot do great stuff but potentially some clubs don’t have the budget to invest time following up on players to find out how they’re doing and put the resources in this.
“They maybe don’t follow best practice and there should maybe be a pot of money they can call upon from the FA and the FA or Premier League should be saying, ‘you’re getting a fine because you’ve not followed best practice here.’
“We don’t want some of the awful consequences that potentially have happened in the past.”
With the scale of finances available to the highest tier of football in England, it seems bizarre to think of the lowest levels of the game - supporting the future of the national side and, indeed, some of the Premier League’s most exciting stars - taking home such a small piece of the monetary pie.
There is a logic around this to a certain degree in light of the financial arrangements the English top-flight specifically attracts.
But it will become increasingly difficult for the likes of Liverpool and co. to push through homegrown talent in the coming years - particularly if the threat of COVID-19, rearing its ugly head once more courtesy of the Omicron variant, becomes as serious a concern as it has in mainland Europe.
If it comes down to it, limited spending in upcoming transfer windows will be the worst of England’s elite’s worries - for the rest, it will represent a far more ominous prospect.
When discussing the health of English football - in particular, the lower leagues and grassroots - Conlon agreed that the Premier League should bear some responsibility.
“I don’t know the exact stats in terms of how much the FA do contribute to grassroots football but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough support at the bottom,” the coach noted.
“It feels like there’s a huge disparity between the types of money going through the very top of the game and the bottom.
“I accept that that [the top of the game] gets all the attention and views and all the sponsorship, so I recognise that this ends up becoming more of a conversation around capitalism in some ways.
“I understand the realities of the situation but it would be amazing if the Premier League could find some ways to funnel that money into non-league football, into grassroots, because it would end up helping us in the end and helping the Premier League be so much better in the future.”
With finance expert Kieran Maguire expressing his doubts that grassroots would directly benefit from the Premier League’s bumper US TV rights deal negotiated with NBC Sports, it seems hopes of a brighter future for the lower echelons of English football remain little more than a pipedream as things stand.
Which makes it all the more important to take into account the potential repercussions of a lack of proper funding.
When as fans we’re watching such exciting talents break into the football arena and we start dreaming of what could be, it’s undeniably critical that we take a moment to consider those who, for whatever reason, fell short of their hopes and ambitions in the sport.
Harvey Elliott is one of a handful of talents who can dance with the stars, thanks in part to the support provided by Sean Conlon and other coaches.
However, as upsetting a thought it might be, the reality of the situation is that support is not a given, let alone a minimum, for a considerable number of talents who slip through the cracks of the Academy system.
At risk of inviting (as Conlon aptly notes) debates over the political and economic structuring of our society, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Premier League (and the FA, by extension) could be doing more to protect those at the lowest levels of the game.
Only time will tell whether money starts moving in the right direction to address this matter.
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