Ben Woodburn exploded onto the scene at Liverpool with a goal in an EFL Cup win over Leeds United which fired him straight into the record books. The Welsh wonderkid beat Michael Owen’s long-standing record by 98 days when he smashed the ball home at the Kop end. He was just 17 years and 45 days old.
The Reds used to be famed for their academy graduates. But in recent years there’s been a drought. Youngsters have broken through with big reputations but have failed to kick on and make that next step from potential worldie to Kop icon.
Neil Mellor impressed for a period and Conor Coady appeared to have a bright future but their careers fizzled out with the Anfield club.
Steven Gerrard is the last academy graduate to really make an impact on Merseyside, and he’s now coaching the under-18s side. Success stories have been scarce and the Liverpool faithful have long been craving a player they can call their own to get behind.
Fans take players who have signed for the club to heart all the time but there’s nothing quite like the bond they have with a youth graduate. That was pretty evident with the reaction to Woodburn’s strike against Leeds.
There was a lot of speculation this summer surrounding Woodburn’s short-term future. Would he be loaned out in order to get regular playing time under his belt which would no doubt aid his development? Or would manager Jürgen Klopp look to manage his minutes at Anfield?
He was linked with a move to the Bundesliga with Hannover keen on signing him on a season-long loan alongside his Liverpool teammate Ryan Kent. In the end they settled with just Kent.
Championship clubs were also queuing up to sign the talented attacker with Leeds United reportedly heavily interested in making him a key part of their squad this season. While Chris Coleman is keen to link up with Woodburn at Sunderland.
There was even talk that Brendan Rodgers was looking to raid his former employers to bring Woodburn north having lost Patrick Roberts whose loan had expired with the Scottish champions. However, a move never materialised and Celtic ended up bringing Roberts back to Parkhead.
Woodburn was just relishing his opportunity with the first-team at Anfield. He was part of the pre-season tour and scored in wins over Wigan Athletic and Athletic Bilbao. It appeared as though Klopp was rotating the Welsh Wizard with Barcelona transfer target Philippe Coutinho, as the playmaker in the middle three.
The youngest goal scorer in the club’s history caught the eye again in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in Hong Kong and Klopp wasn’t shy about heaping praise on the youngster: “Ben has played there’s a few times before and he’s a very smart player,.
“He’s too young to fix him to any one position. We want to have him in and around our team.”
With Coutinho ruled out for the first few matches of the new campaign with a back injury after Barcelona’s botched attempt at bringing him to the Nou Camp, it was an ideal opportunity for Klopp to give Woodburn minutes in the Premier League.
In fact he’s played more minutes for Wales (75) than he has for Liverpool this season (45) after making an appearance in Liverpool’s Carabao Cup defeat to Leicester City in September.
The Reds had a forgettable September, winning just one of their six games and scoring seven goals in the process. Going forward, despite having Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, a fleeting visit from Sadio Mané, Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho to call on, Klopp’s men have looked pedestrian and predictable.
Teams sit deep and stifle them and in the end Liverpool finish with 35 shots but the majority of them are taken in frustration from 30/35 yards.
It’s felt like they’ve needed a touch of unpredictability. Some youthful innocence. Something Woodburn could offer because, after all, what is the worst that could happen throwing him on in a match with 20 minutes left to play?
He already shown that he has the potential to be a game changer and a match winner while away on International duty with Wales. He came off the bench with the score at 0-0 against Austria and he fired home what was the eventual winner.
It was an instinctive strike from 20 yards which arrowed into the bottom corner. A more experienced player may have tried to work the ball into the box to create a chance. But that’s what Woodburn offers the team. Not just quality but fresh ideas and confidence.
Klopp knows how to develop players having famously brought Mario Götze through the ranks at Borussia Dortmund. During his second campaign in the Bundesliga, however, he finished with 33 starts. The circumstances are different but Götze only became the player he was because of the exposure to the first-team.
Woodburn’s contract expires in the summer of 2019. Negotiations may become a tricky conversation if he’s not playing regularly and Klopp’s adamant that he won’t be loaned out. It’s something the club will want to avoid but the 18-year-old wants to be playing football. If he can’t at Anfield he may have to look elsewhere.