Perhaps the most interesting part of an interview with Liverpool‘s Trent Alexander-Arnold this week was his recollections of how tough the club’s coaches were with him when he was trying to make the step from academy player to first-team regular.
The 21-year-old told how, in a bid to toughen him up, Liverpool coaches would laugh at him when he made mistakes and deliberately ask the club’s best young attacking players to try and make him look stupid.
Alexander-Arnold is grateful for the tough love but what if he hadn’t been? What if he had complained?
I raise the point because it seems to be that academy coaches walk an impossibly delicate line these days.
On the one hand, they are given the task of producing young footballers mentally strong enough to cope with the rigours and the sheer unfairness of the professional game. On the other, they must be permanently aware of the increasingly intense scrutiny of their methods by parents and the game’s authorities.
It is right that young players are safeguarded.
Stories of youngsters being placed in tumble dryers — as Gary Neville was at Manchester United — belong to a bygone age. Things that some people thought were acceptable back then clearly are not now. Humiliation and ridicule do not build character, they destroy it.
But at the same time, coaches of talented young players have a responsibility to shape and mould them in a way that prepares them for the realities and pressures of life in the sporting world.
It must be hard to do that when you know your whole career can be placed at risk on the back of a complaint of bullying from one parent. Former Wales forward Craig Bellamy is quietly rebuilding his career and reputation at Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht in Belgium after he found himself on the wrong side of current guidelines during his time working at Cardiff’s academy.
Bellamy knows what real bullying feels like because he suffered it as a teenager at Norwich.
But, at Cardiff, he soon discovered that you aren’t allowed to swear and that conversations with players who you are about to release must be conducted with the utmost sensitivity.
He was also accused of being xenophobic for, among other things, turning down the volume on the TV when the English national anthem came on.
None of it sounds particularly extreme and an FA investigation did not find against Bellamy.
But it was clear he could not work for Cardiff any more. Bellamy knows he made mistakes even if the FA investigation did not find against him. He has now moved on, with a lesson learned.
Bellamy claimed in a recent interview that there are complaints being made against academy coaches every week.
It is not hard to believe and it places our clubs, the FA and our coaches of young players in an invidious position.
Talk to many established players now and they will tell you that the regimes of sweeping terraces, cleaning boots and scrubbing floors helped to make them who they are today.
It is not hard to work out what the reaction would have been had their parents seen fit to complain.
We live in more enlightened times now and the welfare of our young people must be paramount. But mental toughness and resilience cannot be bought over the counter or administered at a medical. So where does it come from? How far can an academy coach go these days?
Alexander-Arnold remains ever grateful for his handling. But it seems that any coach of young players in the country, no matter how responsible, will be vulnerable to the next complaint.