Liverpool’s last 12 academy grads under Rafa Benitez & how they fared

Quick Reads
Maritn Kelly of Liverpool FC during a pre-season friendly game against Atletico Madrid at Anfield, Liverpool. 8 August 2009.

Liverpool have a rich tradition of welcoming academy graduates into the first team, and current boss Jurgen Klopp is following Rafa Benitez’s lead in that regard.

Benite gave senior bows to more than a dozen academy players during his time at Anfield, as well as making the most of local heroes Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, who made their debuts before his arrival.

Here’s what has happened to the last 12 academy graduates to play their first Liverpool minutes under the Spaniard.

Jack Robinson

Robinson was the last Liverpool player, academy or not, to be handed a debut by Benitez.

The defender was just 16 when he came on for Ryan Babel in the manager’s final game in charge against Hull in 2010 before playing 10 more times for the Reds.

He joined Sheffield United from Nottingham Forest in January 2020, making it back to the Premier League. United were relegated in 2021, but Robinson remained at the club and made 27 Championship apperances in 2021-22.

Handily, we spoke to him a few years ago about leaving Liverpool.

READ: Jack Robinson on leaving Liverpool, Suarez, Sterling and life at QPR

Dani Pacheco 

Earlier in Benitez’s final campaign, he handed a maiden first-team appearance to compatriot Dani Pacheco.

After impressing for the reserves, the forward played six more times that season in a campaign which saw Fernando Torres often absent through injury.

Pacheco was most notably thrown on in a last-ditch attempt to find an elusive third goal in the Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid.

More than a decade on, he’s now in Poland with Gornik Zabrze after spells in Spain and Cyprus.

Nathan Eccleston

When a player is best remembered for a 9/11 conspiracy tweet, it’s generally a sign that his on-pitch contribution wasn’t the best.

Eccleston played nine games for Liverpool, the first of them coming in a League Cup defeat at Arsenal in 2009. He also tweeted: “I aint going to say attack don’t let the media make u believe that was terrorist that did it. #O.T.I.S. [‘Only the Illuminati Succeed’].”

The striker’s run of clubs until drifting away from the game in 2019 was Kilmarnock, Bekescsaba and Nuneaton Town, which reads like a googlewhack.

Dani Ayala

Ayala was on the bench for that Arsenal game but had made his debut earlier in the same season when he replaced Martin Skrtel in a Premier League victory over Spurs, making his first start against Stoke in August 2009.

A centre-back brought over from Sevilla’s academy as a 17-year-old, the Spaniard played five games for Liverpool – all in the league – and stayed in England, becoming a Championship stalwart after leaving Anfield in 2011.

After seven seasons at Middlesbrough, he moved to Blackburn in 2020.

Martin Kelly 

It’s a bit weird to think Martin Kelly made an England squad for a major tournament. It’s very weird to recall he did so while still at Liverpool.

Kelly had played a career-high 12 league games in the 2011-12 season before replacing the injured Gary Cahill in Roy Hodgson’s Euros squad, but his senior debut had arrived more than three years earlier against PSV Eindhoven in the 2008-09 Champions League.

The defender left Anfield at the end of the 2013-14 season and managed to ride out various injury setbacks to carve out a solid career at Crystal Palace. He was released in the summer of 2022 and we reckon he’s unlikely to get an England recall.

Jay Spearing 

Spearing’s debut also came in that PSV game, as a substitute for Albert Riera, while he’ll forever remain a great pub quiz answer after coming off the bench in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Real Madrid later in the same season.

The bulk of his 30 league games for the Reds came under Kenny Dalglish, though he did get three top-flight outings under Benitez, including a start in the infamous ‘Beach Ball Game’ at Sunderland.

Unlike Kelly, the midfielder never earned an England cap.

Following spells at Bolton, Blackpool and Tranmere, Spearing is now back at Liverpool in a mixed role that will see him coach the Under-18s and play occasionally for the Under-21s to provide some experience in among the young prospects.

Stephen Darby

Liverpool-born defender Darby was living the dream in October 2008, making his Reds debut in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid and replacing Champions League winner Xabi Alonso to boot.

It was one of three games he played under Benitez in 2008-09, and one of seven in total that he played for his boyhood club before leaving in 2012.

After a long stint at Bradford and a shorter one at Bolton, motor neurone disease cut his professional career short at the age of 29. He has since become a charity ambassador. In 2019, he told the Daily Mail: “There’s no point in getting down about it or thinking about it every day.

“That’s a waste of time. At the moment I’m independent although I have symptoms. I still do most things. There’s no point in using that time to feel sorry for myself.”

Damien Plessis

Plessis was signed as a teenager with a view to spending time in the reserves before being thrust into first-team action, but things can change pretty quickly.

The Frenchman, who joined from Lyon’s academy in the summer of 2007, was thrown in at the deep end when Benitez handed him a start at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in April 2008.

Plessis, whose brother Guillaume had a short stint at Everton, left Liverpool in 2010 and has since played in Greece, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Sweden and Doncaster. He was last spotted on the books of SS Capricorne on the island of Reunion.

Miki Roque

Liverpool’s 2006-07 Champions League campaign ended with defeat to AC Milan in the final, but it also included a group stage game at Galatasaray in which young Spaniard Miki Roque earned his first minutes for the club.

It was the defender’s only appearance for the Reds before he returned to Spain, joining Real Betis in 2009. While at Betis, he was diagnosed with pelvic cancer at the age of just 22. He lost his battle with the illness two years later, dying in June 2012.

“The game of football really is the most insignificant thing. Rest in peace, Miki,” Benitez wrote upon hearing the news, while Pepe Reina – Liverpool’s goalkeeper in the 2007 final – paid tribute to his former colleague after Spain’s victory in the Euro 2012 final.

Danny Guthrie

Guthrie also featured in that game in Turkey, but his debut came a couple of months earlier.

The Shrewsbury-born midfielder came off the bench for Mohamed Sissoko in a 4-3 League Cup win over Reading in October 2006 and earned Liverpool a fee of £2.5million when he moved to Newcastle after just seven games for the Reds.

After a stint in Indonesia with Mitra Kukar, Guthrie returned to English football with Walsall in 2019 before a six-month spell with Icelandic club Fram in 2021.

READ: Danny Guthrie: I chose Indonesia over Champ; what else can I achieve in UK?

Lee Peltier

Peltier started the Reading game, his first Reds appearance of any kind, and one of just four he made for the club before leaving for Yeovil Town in January 2008.

The Liverpool-born defender took the long way round to reaching the Premier League, playing for Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City in 2018-19 more than a decade after his Liverpool debut.

After more than 150 games for the Bluebirds, Peltier left for West Bromwich Albion after reportedly falling out with new manager Neil Harris, and after an unsuccessful spell in the Midlands he spent the 2021-22 campaign at Middlesbrough.

James Smith

The third debutant in that Reading game, Smith replaced Peltier for the final 15 minutes but never played for Liverpool’s first team again.

He dropped into non-league after leaving Liverpool, playing for Altrincham and Southport, but has not been heard from since leaving the latter in 2014.

If any of you know what he’s up to these days, let us know.


More Liverpool

A detailed recollection of the 2007 UCL final – on and off the pitch in Athens

Stephen Warnock on realising Liverpool ‘dream’, acrimonious exit & near return

Can you name Liverpool’s top scorer from every Premier League season?

When the press believed Liverpool were signing a fictional player