Liverpool's teenage 'Tasmanian Devil' could be Arne Slot breakout star after unexpected decision

Liverpool manager Arne Slot will soon be working with teenager Ben Doak
-Credit: (Image: ANP via Getty Images)

A call-up to the provisional Scotland squad for next month's European Championships was no doubt exactly the finale Ben Doak had envisaged for what was last summer being touted as a breakthrough season.

But it says much that the Liverpool winger's inclusion in his country's 28-man party for the finals in Germany has been met with significant surprise and prompted heated debate.

Such has been a difficult campaign for the 18-year-old, whose injury problems have meant he hasn't played a single minute at any level for the Reds since undergoing a major knee operation after tearing his lateral meniscus in December.

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Doak returned to training with the Reds first team last week but will still face a race against time to prove his fitness before Scotland head coach Steve Clarke trims the squad down to the 26 who will journey to the Euros.

Clarke admits Doak is unlikely to be ready for Scotland's first warm-up game with Gibraltar in Portugal on Monday week but could be involved for the home friendly against Finland five days later. “Maybe in the second game he can get some minutes on the pitch if I choose to do that," says Clarke.

In truth, though, Doak's potential inclusion maintains a trend of the youngster being fast-tracked throughout his career. He was just 16 when signed by Liverpool from Celtic for around £600,000 in the summer of 2022, having already appeared in an Old Firm derby against Rangers. Scoring twice on his competitive debut for the under-18s, after only five games he was promoted to the U21s where he marked his first start with a strike in the 2-1 mini-derby win over Everton at the Academy.

That came only days after his bow in the EFL Trophy while Doak was a regular in the run to the UEFA Youth League quarter-finals. A first-team debut arrived in November as a substitute in the League Cup tie against Derby County, with similar FA Cup appearances against Wolves and Brighton the following January, although it was a cameo on his Premier League debut at Aston Villa on the Boxing Day that served note of his potential.

Doak then enjoyed an encouraging pre-season, featuring in all five summer friendlies and scoring in the 4-0 win over Leicester City in Singapore. And it led to him replacing Mohamed Salah from the bench in the Premier League opening day draw at Chelsea.

"I call him a Tasmanian devil with the way he is buzzing around, he’s just so quick," said Liverpool skipper Virgil van Dijk back in August. "If his decision-making gets better, and he has all the time in the world for that, then he could definitely be one for the future."

Doak was then given a further taste of first-team football with starts in the Europa League group games at LASK Linz, Toulouse and Union Saint-Gilloise and the League Cup triumph over Leicester City. However, the need for the youngster to be available for possible first-team duty meant he missed out on regular minutes with the Academy teams, with his greater action having come for Scotland's under-21 side.

It was after one outstanding showing against Spain in September that Doak's quandary became apparent. "Imagine a fully-fit Ben Doak!" enthused Scotland U21 boss Scot Gemmill. "It was an exceptional performance from Ben Doak. I would even add that's there more to come from him. He's not fully match fit at the moment because of his limited minutes as he is playing for such a good club."

Doak went on to play another three games for Gemmill's team - scoring against Hungary and contributing an assist in a win in Belgium - but it was when making his sole Premier League 2 appearance this season for Liverpool U21s in December that he suffered his serious knee injury less than half-an-hour into a win over Chelsea. It meant that when opportunity knocked for fellow youngsters Bobby Clark, James McConnell, Jayden Danns and Lewis Koumas during the first-team availability crisis in the New Year, Doak was left frustratingly kicking his heels on the sidelines.

His career, though, remains in an embryonic stage and there's little doubt his potential is largely untapped. “At this stage, Ben is the young one who catches my eye if I am being honest,” says Clarke. “He has got something, attributes that we don’t have in the squad. His searing pace would be one of them.

“But he has still got a lot to learn, as do all the young boys when you bring them in. Everyone has got to learn. Ben hopefully will be big player for us in the future and maybe this summer he can make a little contribution as well.

“It is nice that he is involved in the squad, but let’s just keep a lid on things and hope that he develops and turns out to be the talent that we think and hope he can be."

Clarke had consulted with Doak's Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson before giving the youngster the call, which the Scotland boss admits may have come with no warning. “We keep it exciting by just putting it out and they find out their own way, but not from me,” says Clarke.

It was a surprise Doak perhaps wouldn't have expected after such a testing season. But if the youngster can make any impact at the Euros, new Liverpool manager Arne Slot will be inheriting a talent belatedly ready to take the next step with the Reds.