The training sessions that convinced Liverpool about Kaide Gordon's talent

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Kaide Gordon
Kaide Gordon

In the late 1990s when Liverpool opened their academy — one of the first purpose built sites of its kind in the Premier League — the director of youth football, Steve Heighway, was notoriously cagey when discussing "the next big thing".

There would be a pause, a slight frown and then an explanation of why preferred to keep his counsel on such matters. He wanted to protect his players from over-expectation and — in the spirit of Sir Alex Ferguson with his class of 92 — keep premature media attention at bay.

"The great finishing school for any player is not the academy or the reserves, it's walking down the tunnel. You don't know until a boy does that if he'll take his chance," Heighway said.

"We've always had the players here, but you don't know how good they can be until they get the opportunity."

After semi-retirement, Heighway was invited back to Liverpool under current academy director Alex Inglethorpe a few years ago. One can imagine his disapproval of the tendency to elevate excitement levels around teenage prospects as soon as they get a sniff of the first team, swiftly assembled mini autobiographies feeding the insatiable appetite of those wanting to know who will be next off the production line.

With certain players, it is impossible to keep their rapid progress secret. Heighway discovered that with Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, partly because as soon as they were promoted into the the first team even the senior staff could not restrain their enthusiasm.

“This kid is the best finisher at the club,” Graeme Souness said of Fowler before he’d made his debut. Quite a statement when he still had the likes of Ian Rush and Dean Saunders in his squad.

“Watch out for this kid. He is going to be a superstar,” Jamie Redknapp said of Owen when he was 17 and still in the youth team.

“If you think Michael is good, wait until you see the next one,” he added after the 1998 World Cup, in reference to Gerrard.

There was no restraint when the talent was obvious and the only barrier in a youngster's way was injury. Many clubs will testify to the same experiences. At Everton at the turn of the Millennium, Wayne Rooney was always expected to become one of English football’s most spectacular talents. Everyone in Merseyside football knew his name before Clive Tyldesley told the rest of the nation to "remember it".

The greatest compliment you can pay to Liverpool's latest 16-year-old debutant, Kaide Gordon, is there are echoes of that enthusiasm.

There should and must be hesitancy in making such a comparison about a boy with only 90 minutes of senior football to his name. However, even before his impressive debut against Norwich City on Tuesday evening, it was obvious Gordon would play for Liverpool's first team.

The clearest clue was the fact Liverpool paid an initial £1.1 million fee to Derby County for him last season, a figure which may rise to beyond £3 million during the course of Gordon's career.

It must have been a bittersweet moment for Derby's youth coaches seeing their ex-trainee excel at Carrow Road, even if the extra £100,000 activated by an appearance clause might be useful given the club's financial problems.

Gordon had been at Derby since he was nine, his connections to the midlands club extending to the fact that his mother still works at the Pride Park ticket office. His older brother, Kellan, was also at the club before moving to Mansfield.

Gordon’s was a familiar story of thriving in a higher age group, playing for the Under 18s as a 15-year-old and being named Derby’s academy player of the year in 2020. By his 16th birthday last October, Derby’s youth coaches agreed he was the best player of that age they had ever had at their academy.

Upon taking over as manager, Rooney wasted no time promoting Gordon to his first team squad, handing him his debut against Birmingham City in December last year. He was desperate to integrate him into his line-up in the second half of last season.

“I brought Kaide up with the first team initially to train with us for a week to see how he reacted to it, and he was one of the best trainers,” Rooney said at the time. “I kept him with us for a couple of weeks and he’s been training at the same level – if not to a better level – than a lot of the other senior players.”

With echoes of their move for Raheem Sterling in 2010, signed from QPR aged 15, and Harvey Elliott, signed within weeks of his Premier League debut for Fulham, Liverpool felt they had to move quickly to secure Gordon, knowing there would be a queue of suitors, including Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Gordon is already an England under-18 international, so scouts around the country were aware of his potential and encouraged that his club was so open to offers.

Derby chairman Mel Morris was told by his coaches to resist a sale for longer as there was a feeling Gordon’s value would increase the more first team games he played. Recent events may offer a clue as to why he took the money there and then.

Liverpool is always an attractive destination for young players where the philosophy of being "old enough if good enough" could be a club motto.

Within weeks, Gordon was benefiting from the integration between the first team and under-23 squad at the new Liverpool training ground in Kirkby. The number of televised under-18 and under-23 matches these days means it is impossible for coaches to play it down when a youngster excels, and Gordon impressed instantly.

“People get excited, and rightly so,” Liverpool’s under-23 coach Barry Lewtas acknowledged when asked about Gordon last summer.

As assistant manager Pep Lijnders revealed this week, by pre-season Gordon was among the younger players training fully with the senior players. He made his first Anfield appearance in front of 40,000 fans against Osasuna in a pre-season friendly, when he played with more maturity and poise than is reasonable for one so young, demonstrating his exquisite first touch, close control and turn of pace.

Kaide Gordon in training - GETTY
Kaide Gordon in training - GETTY

That’s why, far from playing down expectations, Dutchman Lijnders backed the teenager to meet them — describing him as "a typical Liverpool winger".

“He has fire in each moment that he touches the ball,” said Lijnders. “He passes players like they are not standing there. I called Jurgen immediately and was like, ‘Wow! We have a new player here'.”

As Heighway rightly said 20 years ago, circumspection is advisable before making brash forecasts. Gordon has barely completed the prologue of his career, let alone started its first chapter.

The recent cruel injury to Elliott is a reminder of why it pays to be cautious given fluctuating fortunes. At Liverpool, for every Fowler, Owen and Gerrard who met the highest expectations, there are others who suffered serious injury on the cusp of their breakthrough and later became the subject of ‘where are they now?’ features.

For now, Gordon has taken that initial step through that tunnel into a senior game. We can already see how good he might become. He is in the right environment to grasp whatever chances come his way.

A mature debut at Carrow Road has whet the appetite for his next appearance, almost certain to be in the next round of Carabao Cup.

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