It took less than five minutes for 17-year-old Ben Woodburn to announce himself on the International stage.
With Wales’ first five qualifying matches all ending in a draw, last weekend’s game against fellow hopefuls Austria was a must win if they were to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup. With the deadlock yet to be broken, Liverpool youngster Woodburn came on as a 69th minute substitute to make his Welsh debut.
Just five minutes later, he picked up the ball 25-yards out and hit a stunning strike into the corner of the goal to give Wales the lead, to the delight of everyone in the Cardiff City Stadium. Wales held on to secure a 1-0 win, putting them back on track to qualify for the tournament in Russia next summer.
Woodburn’s stunner was not only celebrated by Welsh supporters, but Liverpool fans also took great joy in seeing their young star score such an important goal, just minutes after coming off the bench. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has made it clear that he is more than willing to give youth a chance, and Woodburn is one of a number of young players who are repaying Klopp’s faith already.
When the Chester-born forward came on as a substitute in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Leeds United in the League Cup last season, it was a similar script. Woodburn was making just his second Reds appearance having made his debut three days prior, and it didn’t take long for him to make his mark. After just 14 minutes, he scored a brilliant goal in front of the Kop end to become Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer. Had he not been given the opportunity by Klopp, perhaps his heroics for Wales at the weekend wouldn’t have happened.
The fact that a number of Liverpool youngsters are making their mark shows Klopp’s philosophy in motion, with full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold another fine example.
The 18-year-old from West Derby has produced a number of mature displays in a Reds shirt since his debut last season, emerging as an important player in Klopp’s squad. On his Champions League debut, Alexander-Arnold stepped up to take a free-kick, and curled his effort into the bottom corner to put Liverpool 1-0 ahead as they went on to qualify for the group stages of the competition.
Fellow defender Joe Gomez started his Anfield career positively, but injury setbacks saw him struggle to break into the team on his return. Gomez’s resurgence this season saw him return to first-team action in a 4-0 win against Arsenal, and the 20-year-old’s good fortunes continued when he was made captain of England under-21’s this week.
With Woodburn, Alexander-Arnold and Gomez progressing well, the arrival of striker Dominic Solanke from rivals Chelsea boosted Liverpool’s array of young British talent. Solanke scored 41 goals for Chelsea’s youth team before being sent out on loan to Dutch outfit Vitesse last season, scoring seven goals in 25 appearances.
The signing of Solanke is a statement for Liverpool, with the 19-year-old opting to leave the Premier League champions in search for regular first team football. The early signs have been encouraging with three pre-season goals for Solanke, even forcing his way up the pecking order above Divock Origi, with the Belgian striker now out on loan at German side Wolfsburg.
Winger Ryan Kent also impressed in pre-season, and a number of players will be hoping to be the next to break into the first-team, with forwards Harry Wilson and Rhian Brewster also highly rated. Winger Sheji Ojo is currently on loan at Fulham, gaining beneficial Championship experience, while midfielders Ovie Ejaria and Cameron Brannagan are also on the fringe of Klopp’s squad, and are likely to feature this season with Liverpool challenging for four trophies in all.
The message from Klopp is clear: Work hard and you will be given a chance at Liverpool, regardless of age. Whether it is Woodburn’s stunner, Gomez’s return to the first-team, or Alexander-Arnold shining on the European stage, Klopp’s faith in youth is beginning to pay off.