Ben Doak: the Liverpool whizz-kid eyeing Mohamed Salah's starting spot

Ben Doak of Liverpool during the pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and SV Darmstadt 98 at Deepdale on August 07, 2023 in England.

Ben Doak’s agent, Jackie McNamara, admits to a miscalculation when making a bold claim about Liverpool and Scotland’s exciting young winger.

“I said when he signed for Liverpool he would be in the first team within a year,” says McNamara.

“I was wrong. He did it within four months, and it only took that long because he had a few injuries.”

Doak is not wasting time. He left Celtic in 2022 having just been blooded in the Old Firm derby, Ange Postecoglou unable to convince the then 16-year-old to resist the lure of a £600,000 Anfield transfer.

Now a senior European debut beckons, possibly as soon as Thursday when Liverpool face LASK of Austria, and there is a growing clamour for Doak to make Scotland’s Euro 2024 squad should, as looks likely, qualification be confirmed.

Jürgen Klopp and Scotland coach Steve Clarke are balancing soaring hopes with the right moment to unleash an exciting talent. They and those closest to Doak know the ship has sailed when it comes to playing down expectations.

“He is really good,” said Clarke, normally cautious when making public pronouncements.

“Let’s just see how things pan out. He is a young man, he is a very exciting talent, but sometimes you have to let them grow a bit.”

‘This kid is special – a unique talent’

Klopp showed his hand when fast-tracking Doak into his senior squad and offering him a new three-year contract which the club announced on Tuesday night.

When the 17-year-old replaced Mohamed Salah as a substitute at Chelsea on the opening weekend of this Premier League season the main focus was on the reaction of the grumpy superstar than the faith in the precocious talent who has been described as modern incarnation of legendary Lisbon Lion Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone and Wayne Rooney.

That fleeting Stamford Bridge appearance felt particularly symbolic.

Such is Doak’s self-belief, on the day he signed his Liverpool contract he saw Salah as the main barrier to the starting XI. There will be much musing upon how Klopp fills the void if the Saudi Pro League eventually make an offer that cannot be refused for the Egyptian. Liverpool hope they already have a long-term replacement, a player who one of the club’s coaches enthusiastically describes as creating ‘attacking chaos’ and will give experienced left backs nightmares.

Former Celtic defender McNamara has been Doak’s representative since receiving a strong recommendation to watch him in a behind-closed-doors game for his former club three years ago.

“I thought immediately, ‘This kid is special. A unique talent. He has the mentality to make something happen,’” he says.

“When he gets on the ball he lights things up and gets people on their feet. He has a wee spark about him.

“After that I followed him playing for Scotland Under 17s. He was playing that level at 15. There was a game over in Northern Ireland and he was involved in everything. Everyone was talking about him. He is so exciting.

“He has an old-fashioned way, in some respects. A lot of coaches now want the right-winger to get the ball and then pass it to the full back. Not with Ben. He just gets at them. You don’t see that so much with young players now. They all want to pass it, but it does not matter who he is up against he is going to have a go. His goal involvements are outstanding.”

‘Once Ben bursts into the starting side of it, he won’t look back’

That self-confidence was evident during the first training sessions at Liverpool’s AXA Training Centre, when Doak could not contain his eagerness to take on the senior defenders, catching the eye within minutes with a mazy run and shot which struck a post.

The same appetite enabled him to take the giant strides from his local side Dalry Rovers to Ayr United and then Celtic, before he shocked the Scottish champions by informing them his future lay in England’s Premier League.

“He didn’t want to play for the Celtic ‘B’ team,” says McNamara, who felt no split loyalties as he focused on the needs of the player above the club he served with such distinction for 10 years.

Mohamed Salah and Ben Doak of Liverpool during a training session at AXA Training Centre on August 30, 2023 in Kirkby, England
Doak wasted no time in showing off his skills in training for Liverpool - Getty Images/Andrew Powell

“He wanted to test himself against the best and go somewhere where we could work on aspects of his game to make the next steps. What was important is he could see the pathway at Liverpool and he has already made big steps in a short space of time.

“When Liverpool spoke to him they showed him that pathway. Obviously Salah is there on the right, but there are not too many others who play that position. Clearly Salah is a different player, an inverted winger. Once Ben bursts into the starting side of it, he won’t look back. That will be him. He has progressed through every level very quickly. Every time he meets a challenge he is thinking what is next.”

An edge, in a good way

Klopp, who was thrilled when Liverpool beat rivals to Doak’s signature amid last minute efforts from multiple clubs to offer greater financial incentives, is adept at protecting young players. Doak’s current profile is in marked contrast to that of centre-back Jarell Quansah, for example, who by modern football standards was under the radar when thrust into the limelight this season.

Attackers usually get more publicity, and social media and live coverage of youth games means supporters have been salivating at what Doak might become. The highlights reel of last week’s performance for Scotland’s Under 21 against Spain went viral, the opponents feeding the excitement with generous applause for the man of the match.

Last year’s Champions Youth League games also showcased Doak as one to watch for his win at all costs mentality.

Having scored a last minute winner away in a feisty tie at Rangers, club staff advised Doak it would be wiser to swerve the senior Champions League tie at Ibrox that night while the rest of the youth side took their seats.

“He has an edge, but in a good way,” is a recurring observation.

Suffice to say, Doak’s view of this year’s European campaign will be up close and personal, his involvement and influence going some way to determining how soon Clarke makes the call.

“It is not too soon for Ben. Not at all,” says McNamara. “He will give any team something different.”

But is there a danger of hype getting out of hand before he is fully established?

“Ben’s in the right place, at the right club with the right people and family around him and his feet will stay on the ground. There will be no problem with that,” says McNamara.