Three months short of his 22nd birthday, with six unspectacular loan spells under his belt and only 75 seconds of Premier League football, Jake Livermore looked every inch the failed academy graduate destined for lesser things, albeit one that had hung on a year or two longer than most.
His inclusion in the squad for Tottenham’s first game of the 2011-12 season was a surprise, and the central midfield partnership he formed with Niko Kranjcar at Old Trafford looked the like the most short term of solutions.
With Sandro injured, Luka Modric trying to push through a move to Chelsea and Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas lacking fitness, the makeshift replacements lined up against champions Manchester United and, for an hour, matched them.
Eventually United found another gear and went on to a flattering 3-0 win, but Livermore had enhanced an almost non-existent reputation.
Scott Parker arrived a fortnight later and Modric was forced to stay, but Livermore’s job wasn’t over. Jenas’s was. He was sent to Aston Villa on loan for the season.
Jenas’s most notable attribute is his anonymity. He has blended into the White Hart Lane terrain many times, disappearing in front of 36,000 witnesses.
Jenas has a discernible impact on a football match as often as Lionel Messi doesn’t.
He is a cog. A part that taken in isolation you wonder what its function is.
He doesn’t have the range of passing of Huddlestone, or the ability to lead and inspire like Parker. He can’t unlock defences with a swivel and a touch like Modric and he doesn’t make the goal-stopping interceptions Sandro does.
What he does is run around a lot and keep the game moving. His short passing is excellent, his stamina never even comes close to running low and when he finds himself in possession he generally retains it. Relieved of the burden of being the team’s primary creative or defensive midfielder he is liberated and at his most useful. In 2010-11 he was at his best when he had Modric and Huddlestone or Sandro in the team with him. The former linked with Rafael van der Vaart and the strikers, the latter broke up opposition play and Jenas filled in in the spaces between.
Football fans are known for fickleness, but the opposite is too often the case. So steadfast are some supporters in their dislike of certain players, they won’t recognise any positive contribution (outside of a match-winning goal). Jenas, like Peter Crouch, was the subject of that blind prejudice, and even if you were of a mind to appreciate his worth it was hard to find the motivation to jump to his defence.
Against Inter last year, in the return match at White Hart Lane, Jenas’s introduction after the break gave the team an energy boost and increased stability in the middle of the pitch. He was a key component in outplaying the European champions and turning them over 3-1.
That isn’t enough, and paying the fifth best central midfielder in the squad £45,000 a week doesn’t make economical sense for a prudently run football club. Villa are playing at a different level and first team chances are easier to come by there, but an injury after less than two hours of football put him out for the season, costing them over £2 million.
Back in north London, Livermore has featured in 31 of Tottenham’s 41 games this season, a stat loaded by the manager’s blasé attitude to the Europa League. Even still, the five starts and 20 appearances on the bench in the Premier League are more than anyone expected from him and are testament to the faith the manager has shown in him.
He had another good game against Manchester United the Sunday before last and went down to another unfortunate defeat.
He’s the same height as Jenas (within half an inch), the same build and a similar skin tone. He does the same unremarkable things that occasionally tip the balance of a match. From the top of the north stand or on a particularly low resolution internet stream you might not even notice Jenas has been replaced. Add a goal here and there and the transition will be complete.
At the beginning of March headlines read ‘Redknapp backs Livermore for England’, but the truth is on being asked by a journalist if the midfielder was capable of playing international football the Spurs manager replied that ‘he could be’. It’s an aspiration rather than an expectation. If Redknapp gets the England job for the European Championship he’s unlikely to take Livermore to Poland and Ukraine ahead of Parker, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverly, Jack Wilshere, James Milner, Jack Rodwell, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Gareth Barry. Even Tom Huddlestone would be preferred if he managed to get back to fitness by June.
Jenas scored the first goal of Fabio Capello’s reign, but he’s only got four caps in the last four and a half years. Something to put on the mantlepiece rather than a significant international career. Livermore would do well to match that.
Livermore signed a new contract in December and will be at White Hart Lane next season. He will remain a decent squad player, but if Spurs stay in the top four (or even the top six) it’s almost certain he won’t be there for the full four years. He’ll want to play every week and that will be at a club in the lower two thirds of the top flight.
By then Tom Carroll will be of age. The hope is that he will be the next Modric. If he doesn’t turn out to be quite that good, at the very least, he’ll be the new Livermore, AKA the new Jenas.