As Liverpool’s first team prepare for more twists and turns in the Premier League title race, their under-18s are getting ready for the biggest game of their season so far.
Barry Lewtas’ side take on Wigan on Wednesday in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup. Victory at Chester’s Swansway Stadium will have the young Reds dreaming of a first success in the competition since 2007.
It’s been a good season for the Academy already, with the likes of Curtis Jones, Rafa Camacho and Ki-Jana Hoever all stepping up to make their first-team debuts since the turn of the year.
But what of the others, the ones going quietly about their business each day? Goal headed down to Kirkby to sit down with Lewtas and talk through each of his young charges…
VITEZSLAV JAROS – GOALKEEPER
“An unsung hero, in my view. He’s been brilliant. We play in an open way, and he’s made some big saves in games. He’s a good lad, he came in as an under-16, his English is good – in fact, he speaks with a Scouse accent now. He certainly swears with one! It’s funny, hearing this Czech Scouser!
“But Taff [Mark Morris, the goalkeeping coach] has done a great job with him and I think Vite plays a big part in the style we play with. He works hard, he’s been a real plus and there’s more to come. He’s a very good goalkeeper.”
JACK WALLS – DEFENDER
“He’s had to show a bit of character this season, competing with the likes of Neco [Williams] and Ki-Jana [Hoever] at right-back. But he’s got great spirit. He’s had two leg breaks at 15 and 16, the same leg as well. He’s had a tough journey, but he’s kept going.
“He has a real focus on getting better. He’s intense, always wants to work, always wants you to help him practice things. If he sees you hanging around he’s always ‘Can you just fire five balls into me here?’. He’s great like that, really conscientious and really honest.”
MORGAN BOYES – DEFENDER
“He’s been here since he was a boy, under-8s. He’s moved position a lot. I remember moving him to left-back as an under-15, when before that he was more of an attacking midfielder. Now, we’re looking at him more inside, as a centre-back.
“He’s grown, he’s got a nice physical stature, he can head a ball well. He’s comfortable on the ball and quite aggressive in his defending too. He had glandular fever last year and missed a lot of football, but he’s done well for us this term.”
TOM CLAYTON – DEFENDER
“He’s just had surgery after damaging ankle ligaments. He’s a bit of an unsung character in our team; we miss him massively when he doesn’t play. He’s comfortable in possession, passes the ball well into midfield, and behind the scenes he’s a bit of a leader as well.
“He’s very sensible, and when it comes to big moments he plays properly. He’s a real trustworthy player, which when it comes to a centre-back is really important. He understands his game, what he can and can’t do, and it allows him to make good decisions.
“He’s from St Helens and he’s a big rugby fan, goes to all the Super League games, so when we play games at their stadium he gets a bit giddy!”
RHYS WILLIAMS – DEFENDER
“He’s changed his hair recently, looks a bit meaner now! He’s done really well, he’s matured and he speaks really well. He’s a big Preston fan, and he has been at the club a long time.
“He’s good in the air, and he helps us build and play because he wants to pass the ball. He has the physical attributes, and his talking on the field has come on a lot. He’s worked really hard on that. He’s knuckled down and done really well.”
REMI SAVAGE – DEFENDER
“Another one with big hair! He keeps threatening to shave it off but I tell him not to. He’s another left-footed centre-back who is very comfortable in possession. He’s played left-back too. Another local lad, from Aigburth. I’ve had him for years and I think he’ll play a big role in the second half of the season.”
PATRIK RAITANEN – DEFENDER
“Another one who has been a bit unlucky with injuries, he’s a really tough-tackling centre-back from Finland. It’s funny, when we pair the players up for one-on-ones, I like to put Paddy and Niall [Brookwell] up against each other. I just shut my eyes and turn around for that one!
“But Paddy has worked hard despite a few setbacks, and he’ll get his chance before the end of this season, for sure.”
YASSER LAROUCI – DEFENDER
“This is his second season, he came from Le Havre last year and he’s settled in well. His grasp of the language has improved hugely, he’s worked hard at it, and you can see he’s more confident as a result.
“He was a wide player when he came, but this year we’ve just wanted to have a look at him at left-back, because we think he has the attributes. He’s got great athleticism, he runs into space well, he carries the ball and he gives us great width.
“He was a bit sceptical at the time, but as time has gone on I think you can see he’s enjoying it. We look at him as a little success story this season.”
NIALL BROOKWELL – DEFENDER/MIDFIELDER
“A real competitor, he breaks the game up, tackles, runs, presses. He’s a good, secure player who plays in midfield or as a centre-back. He’s another of the Wigan clan, a good lad, all-action, he’ll run through a brick wall for the team. Or tackle one!”
LEIGHTON CLARKSON – MIDFIELDER
“He’s a good footballer, whether he plays as a No.6 or a line higher. He passes forwards, switches play, takes set-pieces, he has great technique.
“He’s had a good season, we lost a lot of creativity with Curtis Jones going up to the under-23s and the seniors, but Leighton has taken some of that on, even if he does it through passing more than dribbling.”
JAKE CAIN – MIDFIELDER
“Leighton’s partner-in-crime. He’s had a real good couple of seasons. Last year he really stepped up, and this year he’s upped it again. Creative player, plays between the lines. He’s done well, he’s got assists and he’s a real good boy to work with. He knows what he needs to do to get better, and that’s never a bad thing.”
MATTEO RITACCIO – MIDFIELDER
“He came to us in the summer from America, and the first thing that struck me was how unbelievably polite he is. The way he conducts himself is first-class. Seriously, you want your kids to end up like Matteo in that regard.
“But he has that American spirit on the pitch too, he’s no pushover. He can break the play up, he can pass, he can link, and he’s really keen to learn. He’s always in the video room, he wants to do extras after training. He’s great for a coach.”
LUIS LONGSTAFF – MIDFIELDER
“He was more of a wide player when he came from Newcastle, and did really well for me at under-16 level, but as he’s evolved we have looked to use him inside. That’s more responsibility, and a bit of mentality shift.
“He’s got a real good game understanding, and he’s a deep thinker about the game. He’s shown a great attitude to learning, and he’s been up to Melwood a few times to train with the seniors, which is great for him.”
ABDI SHARIF – MIDFIELDER
“He always smashes all the fitness tests, he’s got great athleticism and we’ve been really focusing on that with him this season, getting him to make those forward runs. We want him running in behind, using those attributes. He’s a local lad, and he’s got a bit about him! He’s a nice boy, fit as a fiddle and he can play too.”
EDDIE TAGSETH – MIDFIELDER
“Another who has had rotten luck with injuries. He’s missed pretty much a year through various issues. He’s a great runner – sometimes we’ve actually had to rein that in with him a bit, and get him to wait for the game a bit more. We’ve missed him, he gives us something different. It’ll be good to get him back. He’s versatile, he works hard and he can make a difference for us.”
“He joined us as from Arsenal as an under-15, and it always takes a bit of time to settle. He’s been here a while, he’s been recognised by England at youth level, and he’s a midfielder with all different types of attributes. We’re probably still experimenting a bit with him, positionally.
“He’s from Essex, so he likes his clothes and all that! He tries to make out he’s a tough Londoner but he’s not fooling me! He’s a nice boy, a bit of an all-rounder. He’s still finding his identity as a midfielder but he’s done well.”
JACK BEARNE – FORWARD
“It’s been tough for him, behind Paul [Glatzel] and Bobby [Duncan] at the start of the season. He did well for Steven [Gerrard] last year, he’s creative, tenacious, he loves a battle, he presses the ball well and he has a real stinging left-foot shot.
“We signed him from Notts County, he’s a Nottingham lad, and he’s had to be patient. He scored the winner in the derby against Everton earlier in the season. We’ll see more of him in the second half of the season.”
PAUL GLATZEL – FORWARD
“He’s had real tough luck with injuries, but hopefully that’s behind him now. He had a double leg-break having a kickabout in school when he was 15, which obviously set him back. We think the world of him here, and to have those setbacks at the time he did, it was really tough for him. He’s bounced back brilliantly this season. He and Bobby have got 41 goals between them, which you can’t knock.
“He’s a well-respected member of the group. A fluent German speaker, because his mum and dad are from there. He lives up near Wigan and he’s a big Wigan Athletic fan, so the Youth Cup tie is extra special for him. I think he wishes it was at the DW Stadium!”
FIDEL O’ROURKE – FORWARD
“He’s a real trustworthy No.9. You know what you’ll get from him, he’ll run in behind, he’ll link the play and he’s a pest to play against. He has a knack of being in between the posts to score tap-ins, or the ugly goals if you like. He’s a real good character, too. He’s had the armband, and he sets the example of how to behave off the pitch.”
BOBBY DUNCAN – FORWARD
“He’s done great, to be fair to him. He’s come in and scored goals, as I suspected he would. He’s had to adapt and fit in, and fair play, he’s worked his socks off. He had a tough pre-season, where he was in the pool and he was running and he was barely on the field, but we needed to get those fitness levels up.
“And since the first day, he’s worked hard and scored goals. He’s a real good striker of the ball and he scores all types of goal, plus he’s really opened up as to the parts of his game that need to improve. He and Paul [Glatzel] have been outstanding together.”