Things move fast at Liverpool FC. The seasons come and go, the personnel often change, but the one constant through it all is John Achterberg.
The Dutchman has been first-team goalkeeping coach at Anfield for eight years, after spending the previous two working primarily with academy players at Kirkby. Before that, he made more than 350 appearances across the river as Tranmere Rovers’ trusty custodian.
Born in Utrecht, a city in the centre of the Netherlands with a rich and vibrant culture, he has now spent more than two decades living and working on Merseyside. His accent and sense of humour are influenced by both places.
“If you live for 21 years on Merseyside then you become semi-Scouse,” John told The Kopite, “The kids have grown up here – Liverpool is our home.
“This city is great, it has improved over the years and when you work for the club you see how the people support the club. The passion is there with the supporters.”
There was no better place to start our conversation than Madrid. Liverpool are riding high off the back of their sixth European Cup success after victory over Tottenham Hotspur at the Wanda Metropolitano, and the optimism among the fanbase is palpable. It flows within Achterberg too.
“It’s a dream come true for a lot of people, especially if you work closely with the staff and the players. As a player or member of staff you want to achieve the best that you can do. Everyone – as you could see in the parade – is really happy, in the club and the big fanbase. You could see on the street how much it means to all the people, the supporters.”
His usual jovial tone betrays a note of pride and awe as he describes the welcome party. It’s clear to see how much this tremendous show of support meant to the players and staff.
“There must have been more than a million people on the streets. I know they said on the telly there was 700,000 but they must have only looked at the front!
“The support Liverpool brought out on the roads, it don’t think there are many clubs that could produce that. That’s why it will be great if we can make something happen again, because you want to see all the supporters be happy. The players are hungry for success, the coaches are hungry for success.”
‘Just look at Alisson – he is good’
It was a monumental team effort throughout the competition, but one man who stood out was Alisson Becker. The Brazilian moved to Merseyside last summer after the Reds stumped-up a world-record fee at the time for a goalkeeper to sign him from AS Roma, and has been excellent.
A club-record 21 Premier League clean sheets lead to the Golden Glove award in the competition. Similar accolades followed in the Champions League and the Copa America with Brazil, not to mention the countless number of important saves made and the military-like command he has of his penalty area.
Perhaps the 26-year-old’s season-defining moment came in December – as Liverpool fought tooth and nail to protect a slender Anfield lead that would see Jurgen Klopp’s side through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, Alisson would spread himself to deny Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik.
The save was made, and the home side would progress. The personal congratulations from Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson at the next break in play told of how important it was at the time.
The sixth trophy in the European cabinet at Anfield tells of how important is was in the Reds’ season.
In part, we have Achterberg to thank for Alisson’s arrival and subsequent stardom on Merseyside. He is constantly monitoring goalkeeping talent around the world and played a major role in deal to bring the Brazilian to the club.
“I watch a lot of games. I probably have about 5,000 reports on goalkeepers. Since I got into this job, I’ve been looking for goalies. When the club is looking for a goalie I say what is in the market and who, in my opinion, is the best one. Always, if I see a good goalie then I monitor him.”
In a bizarre twist of fate, it was an ex-Liverpool stopper who first alerted the Dutchman to Alisson’s potential. Alex Doni’s own impact at Anfield was minimal as he only managed four appearances, but he now has a lasting legacy as the man who sparked a chain of events which led to his compatriot’s arrival.
“In this instance,” Achterberg recalls, “I asked Doni if there was anything good in Brazil, and he told me, ‘just look at Alisson – he is good’. I looked at him and I liked him, so I kept following him.
“In the end he started to play at Roma. For one year he was not in the team but he did play one game which I watched to keep progress. I have done it not only with him but with a lot of other goalies and a lot of younger ones so we know what is around. We then try to sign the best ones we can.
“There’s a bit of what I say, then the boss looks at it, the assistant managers look at it, the scouting look at it. The owners then, of course, need to look at it and decide what is and is not possible. It’s a big project to decide on a player, and everyone has to agree to a decision.”
And, thankfully, in Alisson’s case they did.
‘A top professional’
The signing did, however, have side-effects on the careers of Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet. The former is halfway through a two-year loan spell at Turkish side Besiktas, but the latter has spent a lot of time on the bench over the last year.
Not that it has affected his attitude or commitment – the Belgian has earned compliments from all quarters for how he has reacted to the situation he finds himself in, and no-one is more effusive in their praise than his coach.
“Simon is a top professional – I cannot ask for more than what he does. I cannot give him enough praise for it. When you’ve been the No.1 but then go back to No.2, that’s not always easy to accept, but Si did really well with it and has been a really good professional in the team. And he’s not a bad goalie either!”
The common theme when John talks about his goalkeepers is the pride he has for them. It’s easy to notice in his voice, and never more so than when he talks about Mignolet’s influence and work with the other stoppers at the club.
“He always works 100% and he shows all the other goalies every day in training what you have to do to be a professional, which they learn from. That’s how it works, you learn off each other and if you are clever you see things around you and pick it up. It makes you a better goalie.
“Simon works day in, day out to keep all the goalies on track. You see him every day working his socks off, wanting to do more and more, and how he lives off the field too – he’s been really good around the team.
“I’m really happy with the goalkeeping squad, and we cannot complain at that. In football you need everyone – from No.1 to No.40.”
‘They both have the qualities to perform at the highest level’
Beyond Alisson and Mignolet, there are a couple of very promising goalkeepers on the books at Liverpool. There are but a couple of examples of the long-term policy at the club – develop young talent for the future to ensure longevity.
And Achterberg is excited to see what the future holds for the starlets under his wing.
“We have not only [Caoimhin] Kelleher but also Kamil Grabara, who played really well for Poland u21s. The future will be decided by how you perform in the big games.
“They both have the qualities to perform at the highest level, and they showed that last year in pre-season whey played against Man United and Kelleher also played against Man City in the US. They showed maturity in those games and they show the quality in training. You have to be consistent every game to take the next step in your career.”
Grabara spent the latter half of the 2018/19 season on loan at Danish side Aarhus GF, where he made 16 appearances and got a real taste for first-team football.
Kelleher remained on Merseyside, where he played 11 times in Premier League 2 and got a taste around the first team while sat on the bench in the FA Cup loss to Wolves and the Champions League final in Madrid.
They have had been developed in different ways, but Achterberg is hopeful that both can have a bright future in the game.
“Kamil has played in Denmark and done really well. Quive [Kelleher] is also ready to play but probably stays for another year, and when his chance comes he needs to take it. He is a calm ‘keeper who can play with his feet and he has great reactions.
“They are the tools you need in a goalkeeper, being calm, making good decisions, having good speed reactions and being powerful. The tools are there, we are working and making progress. They have to create a drive to always improve and get to the next level and we give them the coaching to help them do that.”
‘We’re in a good way with the squad we have now’
Achterberg has worked with five different managers during his time at Anfield. From the end of Rafa Benitez’s reign through Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers to current boss Jurgen Klopp, he is uniquely placed to comment on the progression made in the last decade.
No-one could deny that the German has done a brilliant job during his four years in charge. We have all taken his effervescent personality to heart – he instils confidence and calmness with his bizarre yet loveable demeanour. John is in the position of witnessing his impact first-hand.
“The boss has made the club a lot more positive. You see the atmosphere has changed in the stadium, it’s a lot more positive, and the boss had a big part in that.
“The way he has coached and the way he lets the team play has changed the way the crowd has been. A lot of times before they were edgy but now they have trust in the players, in the team and, of course, in the manager.”
He has also witnessed changes at the very top. A decade ago Liverpool were in a bad place financially, and there was a very real threat of administration until John W. Henry and Fenway Sports Group – then under the name New England Sports Ventures – bought the Reds.
In the years since, careful financial control has helped the club return to its former glory. Once the accounts were taken care of, a new Anfield Main Stand, clever recruitment and results on the pitch have restored the sense of optimism once again.
Many fans want to see one or two additions this summer so the Reds can double-down and look to push on this summer, but the message coming from the club says Klopp and Co. are happy with the squad at their disposal – something John reinforces when asked.
“Every year the team has taken the next step and that’s what we’re always trying to do. You want to keep the best players and, if it’s possible and if it’s needed, to bring in players. But we’re in a good way with the squad we have now, we have nearly all top players so it’s hard to complain!”
As we know, it isn’t as simple as finding a player that looks good and signing him. There is a thorough process in place to ensure that resources aren’t wasted and that anyone brought in is tailor-made for the club and the system.
“It’s a big thing with the scouting and the boss all working together. The coaches looking at everything and making videos of players, and then it all comes together to find the right players. Obviously, the boss makes the decision if he likes the player, the scouts say their opinion and then they make a decision together with the owners if it’s possible.”
‘We want to try to win any trophy that we can’
Winning the Champions League was an excellent achievement, but no top club rests on their laurels. John is eager to emphasise the intent going forward.
“The plan is to try to win something again, and if you can win the Champions League or the Premier League that is always the plan. If you work or play for Liverpool everyone has the same targets. You’re a top club and you expect to win, and this is what we want to do. We want to try to win any trophy that we can.
“There are a lot of clubs and a lot of competition so it is not going to be easy, but we will try our hardest again.”
What the future holds for the club on the pitch is, of course, a mystery. Achterberg knows the unpredictability of this sport, and is keen to reinforce the idea of taking it one day at a time – even when it comes to his own future.
“You know football, you can only look as far as the next game! That is football – you have to be positive. Of course, I want to stay as long as I can and work as hard as I can, and that is always what I strive for. In football it’s hard to predict, but hopefully I can be there another ten years!
“That’s how it is. No-one can look in the crystal ball, you just have to work every day and hope it works out.”
An easy-going character, speaking with John feels like a chat with an old friend over a pint at a bar. Our conversation ends with a simple line fitting that environment.
“Catch you later,” he says as the interview draws to a close. John Achterberg is a calm and collected man in a position of great responsibility. Usually a winning combination.