Cameron Brannagan: From Pride of the Liverpool Academy to Peripheral Figure

Jack Lusby@jacklusby_Featured ColumnistDecember 7, 2016

When Cameron Brannagan came on to make his Liverpool debut, replacing Jordan Rossiter with 11 minutes left to play in the Reds' 1-1 draw with Bordeaux in the Europa League group stage in September 2015, the talented midfielder capped a long journey through the club's academy ranks.

"He has been at this club since the age of five, and it was a proud moment for him and his family when he made his Liverpool debut in Europe," wrote under-23s manager Michael Beale in his academy column.

Beale, who had coached Brannagan at under-16 level before they both stepped up to the forefront of Liverpool's youth setup, offered some advice to his captain, with a long-term senior role on the agenda.

"The staff really believe in him, and it really was an outstanding moment when he made his debut," he continued. "What I would urge him to do now is kick on, try to get his first start and move on from there, but I certainly believe in Cameron as a football player, and I know how highly he is thought of by the staff."

But over 12 months and nine first-team appearances later—including his full debut against Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup and his first Premier League start away to West Bromwich Albion in May—Brannagan's development has stalled.

Brannagan is yet to feature for Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool this season, failing to even make the substitutes' bench in any of their league or EFL Cup clashes so far.

His fade into the periphery has been swift, and in a cutthroat age when a young player's career at a top-level club is subject to intense scrutiny, Brannagan's diminishing role should be a cause for concern on Merseyside.

Born in Salford, but part of Liverpool's academy since 2001, Brannagan proved something of a late bloomer, with the likes of Rossiter and Jordon Ibe regularly touted as the club's finest young prospects.

Nevertheless, he stood out from contemporaries Jordan Lussey, Nacho Huertas, Craig Roddan, Daniel Trickett-Smith and Jordan Williams to establish himself as a talent worth savouring at the Reds' Kirkby youth base.

Brannagan stepped up to under-21 level for the 2013/14 campaign and was given his first recognition by Brendan Rodgers, then manager of the first team, at the beginning of 2014, when the Northern Irishman named him on the substitutes' bench for a 2-0 FA Cup third-round victory at home to Oldham Athletic.

Shortly after, Bleacher Report's Matt Ladson included Brannagan alongside Rossiter, Ibe, Harry Wilson and Ryan McLaughlin in a list of players ready to make their rise through Liverpool's youth system.

The midfielder had just signed his first professional contract with the club and regularly joined Rodgers' squad for training at Melwood, looking to learn from Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard.

At the end of the 2013/14 season, the Independent's Ian Herbert reported interest in Brannagan from La Liga giants Barcelona, highlighting the immensity of his potential as a young midfielder.

The following campaign, Brannagan was named on Rodgers' bench on five more occasions, including three times in the Premier League, away to Arsenal and Hull City and at home to Newcastle United, all in April, indicating his proximity to a maiden first-team outing.

Brannagan's stock soared in 2015/16, totalling 454 minutes on the pitch over his nine appearances, averaging 50.4 minutes per game. In doing so, he showcased his talents as an intelligent, sprightly midfielder with an excellent passing range and a tactical flexibility that allowed him to perform in a variety of roles.

"For his age, he brings everything you need for a midfield player," Klopp told reporters after Brannagan extended his deal with the Reds in October 2015, weeks after the German's arrival as manager. "He wants to play football, he's strong, he's clear, he's cool."

Brannagan had agreed a new contract to the end of the 2017/18 campaign, but by the time Klopp's first season at Anfield came to a close, discussions were already under way regarding an improved deal—possibly fuelled by renewed interest from Barcelona, as well as Real Madrid, according to the Mirror's Ed Malyon.

The Liverpool Echo's Neil Jones cited Liverpool's move to offer Brannagan new terms as "recognition of his development," with the next logical step either a high-profile loan move or an increased role in Klopp's senior squad. 

That loan switch looked to be cemented at the beginning of August, with Jones reporting Championship side Wigan Athletic had agreed a deal to take the midfielder to the DW Stadium for the season.

The terms of this agreement included a clause stipulating that Brannagan should play at least 75 per cent of the Latics' games or they would be penalised financially, in an effort to guarantee the 20-year-old's development continued its positive trajectory.

However, two weeks later, the Echo's James Pearce revealed Wigan had pulled out of the deal, holding reservations over the clause and the financial ramifications of Brannagan's progress—or lack thereof.

Brannagan had featured in seven of Liverpool's nine pre-season friendlies and travelled with the squad on their tour of the United States, so he still looked set to play a role for Klopp's side in 2016/17.

But four months into the season, Brannagan is yet to play for the first team or even take a place on the substitutes' bench. While he was a regular fixture at Melwood previously, he was last pictured training under Klopp in September.

Instead, Brannagan has now returned to Beale's under-23 squad, but his time between training grounds has muddied his role further, losing the captain's armband he wore in 2015/16 to Harry Wilson—"it was a case of who was going to be the best fit with the staff," his coach told the Echo's Andy Kelly.

So far, he has played nine Premier League 2 games this season, scoring two and assisting one—all in a 6-2 win away to Tottenham Hotspur under-23s in September—and after his impressive spell under Klopp last term, this represents a significant step back in his progress.

Brannagan isn't the only one, however: Pedro Chirivella (five) and Connor Randall (seven) both played five or more games for Liverpool last season but have since dropped back down to the under-23s, with the latter making a sole appearance on Klopp's substitutes' bench so far in 2016/17.

Danny Ward, Brad Smith, Joao Carlos Teixeira, Ryan Kent, Sergi Canos and Jerome Sinclair all left the club either on loan or in a permanent deal in the summer, with Ibe also departing to join Bournemouth for £15 million.

A new breed has emerged in their stead in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ovie Ejaria and Ben Woodburn, and while this is a routine cycle for top-level clubs—owing to the demand for success and the inconsistency of youth—it has served to cloud Brannagan's future.

Falling from long-term Barcelona target to bit-part reserve at Liverpool is a disappointing development for Brannagan, who will be wary of following the likes of Lussey (now with Southport), Roddan (now Sligo Rovers) and Trickett-Smith (now Sacramento Republic) down the football ladder.

Debuting for Liverpool is no guarantee of a future at the top level, though there is no shame in carving out a career in the lower leagues. As the Guardian's Sachin Nakrani's excellent, revealing interview with ex-Reds youth product Adam Morgan—now with non-league Curzon Ashton—proves, there are many factors that can stall a young player's development.

The fact remains, however, that Brannagan is still only 20 years old, and he's working under a manager who recently proclaimed that "in my opinion, 22, 23 is still a young player." So how can the lifelong Liverpool player react to this season's setback?

"I've just got to keep working hard," he said in September, per Chris Shaw of Liverpool's official website. "If the manager needs me, I'm here to be called upon."

    

Jack Lusby will be covering Liverpool throughout 2016/17 as one of Bleacher Report's lead correspondents. Statistics courtesy of Transfermarkt.co.uk. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Jack on Twitter @jacklusby and Facebook here.  

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