Liverpool and ‘Boy A’: Academy failings, a controversial relationship and an aggrieved mother

In September 2022, the mother of a young footballer received an email from the Premier League — and she could not believe what she was reading.

Her son, whom we will call Boy A to protect his identity because he is still a minor, had been a player at Liverpool for many years but, according to the email, his time was over.

“We have been notified that (Boy A’s) registration has come to an end, following what we hope was an enjoyable period of both football and personal development,” the email read, rather breezily. “We hope that as a family you will look back on your academy experience in a positive way.”

Nobody, however, from Liverpool’s academy had informed the mother or her son about this news.

At the start of 2022, Boy A’s parents — who will also stay anonymous so as not to identify their son — say they were told by a senior academy director at Liverpool that their son would “have to fall off a cliff not to be offered another two years”.

When his mother queried the Premier League email with Liverpool, club secretary Danny Stanway replied to say it was automated, and only issued due to the fact her son was technically approaching the end of a trial period which the club hoped to extend, although he apologised for the “shock” it had caused.

In isolation, the release — however clumsily handled — of one young player may not constitute a significant problem. But a complaint by Boy A’s mother about his treatment at the club, lodged before the Premier League’s email was sent, and Liverpool’s subsequent internal investigation, summarised in a 15-page report that has been seen by The Athletic, raises concerns that may have wider implications for the academy.

These include:

  • Allegations from Boy A’s mother that her son did not receive adequate mental health support as his time at Liverpool was ending
  • Concerns from the mother relating to a “personal relationship” between academy manager Alex Inglethorpe and academy psychologist Yvie Ryan
  • Failings in Liverpool’s record-keeping following important player development meetings between staff, including those involving parents, with the club admitting in its report that processes were “inadequate”

In its conclusions, Liverpool denied that Inglethorpe had any specific involvement in the decision to retain or release Boy A, over and above his involvement in the same decision for other players, and that “any personal relationship (between Inglethorpe and Ryan) is not considered relevant in this case”.

Liverpool also concluded that Boy A had not been denied access to mental health and well-being services.

Academy manager Alex Inglethorpe has been at Liverpool for more than a decade (Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

The Athletic approached the mother of Boy A, who said that Liverpool’s findings did not answer all of her questions. Though club investigators denied that her son’s back injury was misdiagnosed, she remains dissatisfied with Liverpool’s handling of it — specifically the length of time it took to secure a specialist appointment after a GP’s referral letter went missing.

Beyond the injury, she says it has never been explained to either her or her son why his place was in doubt after the previous assurances from coaching staff, and why he was never offered a deal.

“This means it has been difficult for him to learn where he went wrong and move on,” she tells The Athletic. “I’d just like proper answers.”

Liverpool’s youth academy was opened 25 years ago in Kirkby. The last decade under the leadership of Inglethorpe has largely been considered a period of harmony and productivity, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones progressing into the first-team ranks.

Like Boy A, Alexander-Arnold and Jones joined at a very young age before signing official forms at the age of nine. All players are then reviewed across two-year periods, with registrations extended if development meets expectations.

For four years from the age of five, Boy A trained with both Manchester clubs as well as Everton but he chose Liverpool. The commitment involved two training sessions a week at the club’s indoor facility, then a match at the weekend.

“He was obsessed with football. He couldn’t wait to get out of the car whenever we dropped him off,” says his mother.

By her own admission, her son was “feisty” and this could sometimes lead to him being “hot-headed”.

“The club didn’t want to take the fire out of his belly,” she adds. “They just wanted to get the best out of him. Me and his dad agreed. He really enjoyed it. If his session started at 4.30, he’d be knocking at the door at 20 past.”

Around two years before his release, following advice from one of Liverpool’s coaches, he went to see psychologist Ryan in an attempt to bring some balance to his thoughts.

After eight sessions, his mother says she was stopped by one of the senior academy directors at Liverpool and told that her son had responded well.

This would tally with a progress report issued to the family in January 2022, when it did not seem as though his position was under threat.

“(Boy A) has a good understanding of the game and has made progress in this area,” the report concluded. “He is controlling his emotions much better now and this allows him to stay in the learning zone. Keep working hard…”

Internally, however, the view of the player was somewhat different according to the findings of Liverpool’s investigation. Some reviews, which are not shared with families, suggested less certainty: it was a borderline decision as to whether to offer Boy A a new contract.

Yet Boy A’s parents left a meeting with Nick Marshall, the assistant academy director, on January 6 feeling confident their son would be kept on.

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Assistant academy director Nick Marshall (Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Liverpool’s investigation found that the only record of that meeting was not “definitive”. At the foot of Marshall’s notes was the suggestion that the boy “is in a good place” but Marshall could not remember exactly what he had told the parents.

“If the phrase in question (he would ‘have to fall off a cliff’) was used, it is clear that it would have been a poor choice of words,” the investigation concluded. “The parents have clearly left the meeting on January 6 with the impression that (Boy A) would be offered a further registration.”

Marshall admitted that he “really liked” the boy as a player and person and this may have contributed towards him using more positive language than he would normally use.

The investigation read: “Nick Marshall was clear in his interview that if he did use this phrase then he regretted it as it was not an accurate reflection of his thinking at the time.”

A back injury the following month meant Boy A could not train or play for 16 weeks at a time when his future was being decided.

It took longer than three months for him to see a GP after a referral letter went missing. According to the club’s investigation, Boy A was handed a referral letter but his parents claim this never made its way to them. “Either myself or my son’s dad waited for him after training sessions and we didn’t see it,” says his mother. “Surely someone should have checked that we got it.”

Liverpool’s investigation concluded this delay would not have affected the boy’s rehab but stated: “There does not appear to be a clear record of how or when this referral letter was sent and it is acknowledged that some weeks were lost due to this misunderstanding.”

In April 2022, the parents of Boy A had met with Marshall where they were told that the club wished to defer any decision about his future because of the injury and he was instead being offered a 12-week trial.

Four days later, on April 30, the boy’s mother informed the club by email of her “serious concerns” about how this was affecting her son, suggesting, “it’s coming across as squad size and football issues are more important than a child’s mental health. Can we prioritise (his) needs ASAP so we can plan (his) future and educational possibilities?”

She also criticised “communication… between coaching and medical” at Liverpool. This stemmed from her son being permitted to train, only to be stopped by a coach.

That intervention prompted one club employee to send an internal email at Liverpool — supplied to the mother in the data correspondence sent back to her, but with the name redacted — stating that Boy A was medically cleared to play but that “potentially he may need impartial psychologist referral outside of the club”.

Subsequently, on May 1, Dr Bevin McCartan, Liverpool’s head of academy medical services, wrote to the mother expressing sympathy with Boy A over the uncertainty surrounding his future and saying she was “happy to facilitate access to mental health services for him”.

But that apparent progress was then undermined on May 4 when, in response to a note from Boy A’s mother regarding her son’s mental health, Ryan sent her a WhatsApp message saying: “Bless him, do you know what’s brought this on?”

The mother says that it was at this stage she lost confidence that her son’s position was being treated seriously. Her interpretation of the exchange was that Ryan had not been told that Boy A’s position at Liverpool was under threat, which, as the academy psychologist, she surely should have been.

Rumours of a relationship between Inglethorpe and Ryan were also concerning the mother, because it presented a perceived conflict of interest. Boy A had benefited from previous sessions with Ryan, but the psychologist’s relationship with Inglethorpe made the mother question whether her son could trust her, especially at such a delicate time when decisions were being made about his future.

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(Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It was the mother’s view that the relationship had the potential to undermine the care that all of the players were getting, not just her own son.

The mother says she did not hear from Ryan again after her offer on May 4 to help if needed.

According to Liverpool’s initial investigation only the impressions of four other men, three of them coaches, mattered in any conclusion about what the club knew about Boy A’s mental health and when.

Liverpool concluded that the coaches interviewed as part of the internal investigation had “not noted any concerns about Boy A’s mental health during the period of inactivity due to injury.” This extended into his subsequent trial. They also said that the help available to him was signposted clearly and there was no evidence he was denied the care and support he was entitled to.

Later in the summer, the mother of Boy A requested all data from her son’s time at the club to be sent to her and was concerned at the thinness of the file she received back. She was informed by Liverpool in August that “we have provided all data up to June 15, 2022,” but she felt information was missing because there were no registration documents, reviews, parents meeting minutes, or psychologist notes.

Liverpool’s investigators established that a multi-disciplinary meeting took place on May 4, though the note-taking from that meeting made it unclear whether it had actually been held on April 27.

The club’s report also paints a chaotic picture of the six academy meetings that took place after the January 6 conversation with Boy A’s parents, when they felt their son was set to earn a new registration.

“There does not appear to be a clear agenda for the meetings and attendance ranges from seven attendees to just two,” the report states. “There are no details noted around the time that the injury was diagnosed in early-to-mid-February and there do not appear to be any notes flagging any concerns around Boy A requiring any further intervention from a mental health perspective. If these meetings are the primary source of information sharing, then the current process is inadequate.”

The summer dragged on. Even though the boy’s place was in jeopardy, albeit without any official explanation of why beyond the back injury, no exit and release strategy was implemented by Liverpool.

Boy A was now a trialist. Strictly speaking, Liverpool did not need to offer the same level of support to trialists as they do to those whose places are in jeopardy — although his long-term association with the club meant that term hardly reflected his true status at the club.

Besides, there were other concerns. One was Phil Roscoe, who had served for 17 years as the academy’s head of player care before resigning at the end of April and was not replaced officially until September. The family believe his exit was a factor in the issues their son faced, and they are disappointed his absence was not addressed in the report.

Roscoe was not interviewed in the investigation and his name is mentioned only twice in the report. Liverpool deny that he was solely responsible for any exit strategy but his departure in May would have created an absence of experience at the heart of the academy, which would have been invaluable in unusual cases such as Boy A’s.

A verbal complaint was made by the mother of Boy A at the end of May 2022. This was formalised into a written complaint at the beginning of September, just as her son’s 12-week trial period was coming to an end.

Eleven days passed before Liverpool offered an official response. By then, the email from the Premier League had landed.

Stanway and Andrea Wilkinson, Liverpool’s head of human resources, led the club’s investigation. An email from Jonathan Bamber, Liverpool’s general counsel and director of football administration and governance, suggests they were chosen because of their seniority and independence from the academy.

It took them two months to file their report with the family. During this period, Liverpool referred the findings of the investigation to an independent legal firm, which reviewed the complaints and assessed whether the report responded adequately.

A day after this was communicated to the family, Boy A’s father collapsed at home and suffered a stroke. At hospital, doctors discovered a 9cm blood clot on his brain; eight months later, he is still receiving speech therapy.

After the stroke, Stanway contacted the family to offer his best wishes but the father has since been unable to watch his son play, “giving him that extra bit of support”.

Boy A has joined another club that is unaware of the full extent of his experiences at Liverpool because the boy is concerned about what impression it would have if he opened up.

“Since his release, he’s retreated into himself,” his mother adds. “He spends a lot of time in his room. It’s been left to the family to try and pick him up.”

This has involved communicating the news of his release to the boy’s school, where his behaviour has dipped.

After the mother expressed dissatisfaction to Liverpool about the contents of their first report, Bamber asked the club’s head of safeguarding to respond to her points of concern. When that second report was sent to the mother, and she felt her questions had still not been entirely answered, she took her grievance to the Premier League, expressing her dissatisfaction at how her son had been treated and asking them to look into Liverpool’s processes.

In March, the Premier League advised the mother to “exhaust” the complaints procedure at Liverpool. The club claims new “best practice” measures have since been implemented “in full”. These include the recording of conversations with the families of players.

After being told the Premier League would place her testimony on file should it need it at a later date, she has not heard from the organisation.

When asked by The Athletic if it was investigating Liverpool’s conduct over Boy A, the Premier League declined to comment. Liverpool insist they have had no contact from them over the matter.

A Liverpool spokesperson said: “While we would not comment on individual matters relating to a minor, Liverpool Football Club takes its responsibilities in the development, welfare and safeguarding of young players extremely seriously.

“In any instances in which potential learnings become apparent or concerns raised, it is standard for a review to be undertaken and our processes adapted accordingly, if so applicable, in keeping with this commitment.”

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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