Liverpool have 'quite unique' forward who shows what Jurgen Klopp has left Arne Slot

Arne Slot is the new Liverpool head coach and will be working closely with the Academy
-Credit: (Image: Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

It was the moment when the impending past and potential future combined to make a glorious present. And a memorable Wembley afternoon encapsulated not only the reign of Jurgen Klopp, but the entire ethos Liverpool have sought to build over the past decade.

With the first-team ravaged by injury, victory in the League Cup final against Chelsea in February was achieved with the help of six Academy graduates - Caoimhin Kelleher, Conor Bradley, Bobby Clark, James McConnell, Jarell Quansah and Jayden Danns - with a further two, Lewis Koumas and Trey Nyoni, on the bench. Five were still teenagers.

And, for Liverpool under-18s coach Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, it was an occasion that united the entire club in feeling they had contributed to a trophy success.

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"Whether it was the players or the members of staff, everybody felt really in tune with the game," he says to the ECHO. "I couldn't take my eyes off it. I watched the game sat with Alex (Inglethorpe, Liverpool's Academy director) and I don't think I've ever seen him as nervous - but I was thinking, 'let's go, let's have a bit of this!'. I'm making mental notes about Dannsy's movement and thinking I have to talk to him about this or that and then I thought, 'what am I doing? He's playing in a Carabao Cup final! Let's just park that for one day!'.

"That would be my highlight of the season. It epitomised what we try to do as an Academy. We'd just gone away to Morocco on a tour with a younger group than we initially expected because we had so many in the first-team squad. We came back and stayed in London and took all the under-18s and 21s to watch the final at Wembley.

"It was an amazing experience to see the boys watching their peers, the lads they train with and know really well, play in the game, a top-level final, and then win it. It was quite special. There were players in the first-team squad who have worked with pretty much every coach at the club, year after year been through the Academy, so to see them get that moment brings home how important what we do as coaches and the reason we keep doing it."

The feelgood factor continued a few days later when Liverpool were in FA Cup action against Southampton. Koumas scored on his debut, Nyoni made his first-team bow late on and substitute Danns netted twice. The 18-year-old Danns later made his Premier League and European debut and, having been at the Academy since the age of eight, is an example of how a young talent can unexpectedly blossom in a short period of time.

"Jayden is quite unique in that if we went back through the last 18 months or two years, when he came to us full-time he was still very much trying to get used to his body," says Bridge-Wilkinson. "He probably still is, to a degree. I don't think he's quite finished growing and isn't quite as comfortable in his physicality as he will be over time. He can still get better and have more control.

"But he's definitely in a place now where he can handle it. He's a big boy, and when boys grow quickly and go through that phase, sometimes it takes time to get used to their new size and stature. He's one of the most evident ones of when they get that and their body starts to come back to them, all the bits in their game we've seen in the years previous return. You don't lose that. They just lose the ability to do that in that moment of time."

To think Danns and Koumas both began the season by scoring for the U18s in their opening 4-2 win over Nottingham Forest. Within weeks they had been elevated to the U21s and soon began training regularly with the first team.

They aren't the only ones to have been fast-tracked. The likes of defenders Amara Nallo and Carter Pinnington and wingers Trent Kone-Doherty and, latterly, Kieran Morrison - all of whom are still 17 - have this season been moved into the higher age group, partly due to a spate of injuries at all levels in the Academy.

It left Bridge-Wilkinson having to increasingly rely on U16s for the U18 side - 15-year-old Joe Bradshaw a standout in recent weeks - and that inexperience contributed to an inconsistent league campaign, results ranging from a 7-1 win over Sunderland to a 9-1 reverse at home to Manchester United.

"We've had a lot of boys that have had opportunities at 21s or first-team level, whether that's games or training to them, and that's always the job - helping them progress to the next stage," he says.

"But it was difficult to get the same players out each week. We have used a lot of U16s after Christmas, which has given them a head start for next season. It's all about learning, whether results go for or against us. We won't know how good players can be until they go out there and play and take that next step."

One occasion when Bridge-Wilkinson was able to call upon a strong side was just a month before the League Cup final, when Koumas scored a hat-trick and Kone-Doherty and Danns netted twice in a 7-1 FA Youth Cup rout of Arsenal.

"That performance was a highlight and to score seven goals against a team of that nature and in a game of that calibre was quite a special one," he says. "From that point onwards, the group started to change quite quickly and dramatically, and when we played Leeds United in the quarter-finals (Liverpool lost 3-1 away) we were a lot different."

One welcome change for next season is the first team's qualification for the Champions League means a return to the UEFA Youth League after an absence of a year. "I do think it was a big miss," admits Bridge-Wilkinson. "We gained an awful lot from being able to play against some of the best teams in Europe in a real competition as opposed to random games. It quite often means we get to play a strong group, which is great for everyone involved. That being said, had we been in it this season, with the amount of players we have lost it would have put a lot on the players we had available."

The sight of Quansah and Bradley - who previously featured in the UEFA Youth League and also played for Bridge-Wilkinson in the FA Youth Cup final defeat to Aston Villa in 2021 - now ensconced in the first team is evidence of the Academy work that incoming head coach Arne Slot will inherit. But despite the change in the senior dug-out, it will be business as usual at Kirkby.

"We will continue to do what we've always done and look to develop players," adds Bridge-Wilkinson. "I don't think Jurgen played these players because they were young - he played them because he could trust them and they had earned their way into his thinking. They are the ones who pushed themselves through the door. The door was definitely open, but Jurgen wasn't just taking on players willy-nilly.

"We don't know the new manager yet but our job will remain the same - pushing the youngsters to improve and getting them ready to take their opportunity."