Meet the West Ham coach hoping to revolutionise New York football forever
Liam Manning is one of those who discovered the likes of Declan Rice and Reece Oxford but is leaving West Ham for a key role with Major League Soccer's NYCFC
New York should be one of the most fertile areas in the world for the production of young football talent. It has more than enough young accessible football fans for that.
But it has not been, and New York City FC are trying to change that. Claudio Reyna, the director of football operations, is working to boost grassroots access to football in New York, and to improve the NYCFC academy based in Orangeburg. They want the best young players from the New York area into the NYCFC first team. And now they need coaches to help get them there.
So NYCFC have plucked one of England’s best youth coaches out of the Premier League to get them there. Liam Manning was the Under-23 manager at West Ham United, effectively running their academy with Terry Westley. He was responsible for helping players like Reece Oxford, Grady Diangana and best of all Declan Rice into the first team. Manning was a crucial cog in one of the leading academies in the country, but he has decided to take on a very different challenge instead.
For Manning, it is a chance to be part of a youth programme that could help to change football in the US. “They have a huge pool of untapped players there,” Manning tells The Independent. “The challenge will be to make sure that they’re playing for NYCFC.”
At NYCFC this largely stems from Reyna, who recruited Manning. “He has a vision of where he wants to take the club,” Manning says. “He has such enthusiasm for the game and a passion for youth development. And with the salary cap there, there is an opportunity to have an impact and develop players.”
The goal for 33-year-old Manning and academy manager Sam Pugsley - who has a more operational role - is to develop the next generation of elite footballers from the New York area. But Manning’s targets are even higher than that. “I don’t just want to produce players for the first team,” he says. “I want to produce players who win things for the first team. For me that’s the biggest challenge.It was always the biggest challenge at West Ham. Can you get a Declan? It’s not just about getting one in the team, it’s about getting one in to improve the team, or play at the highest level. That should be any coach’s aim.”
The example of Rice is instructive. He has been the biggest success at the West Ham academy during Manning’s time there. He arrived back in 2015, recruited from Ipswich Town by Terry Westley to be assistant academy manager, and head of coaching between under-17 and under-23 levels, known as the ‘senior professional development phase’.
This is what Rice went through at West Ham, arriving having been released by Chelsea at 14. Even at the under-16s Rice was the only one in his West Ham age group who only got a scholarship, rather than a three-year professional deal. But Manning believes that helped to instill the mentality in him that has since set him apart.
“In terms of developing a drive, hunger and resilience to overcome challenges, I think that contributed,” Manning says. “Psychologically he is an A+. He’s a great kid with a great head on his shoulders.”
In Manning’s first year at West Ham, Rice was an under-17 and was involved with the youth team, but it was his next year, as an under-18, when he really broke through. “He was captain of our under-23 team and just outstanding every week. Just brilliant at the basics. Reading of the games. Clean in everything he did. He stood out every week, always an 8 or 9 out of 10. That year we won the play-off final to go up to the top division.”
So Rice’s success this season, starring in the Premier League and breaking into the England set-up, was no real surprise. And it was a credit to the environment he was in at West Ham. “He’s two steps ahead of everybody in his head,” Manning says. “He reads the game really well. That’s a psychological attribute but it’s pure concentration and focus. It’s predicting what is happening. You can only do that if you’re concentrating. He is outstanding at that.”
But even as young English players flourish, the reality for young English coaches is that opportunities are sparse. Especially as more Premier League clubs bring in coaches from abroad. Which encourages young coaches to make moves like this. “The biggest challenge is that I don’t see young English coaches getting the opportunity at top-end clubs,” he says. “There are some really, really good young English coaches coming through - Joe Edwards at Chelsea, Ryan Garry at Arsenal, Matt Wells at Fulham. But you get to that Under-23 rule at a Category 1 or Cat 2 club and you think where’s next? What’s my next challenge?”