After becoming Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer in Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over Leeds United, Ben Woodburn must now keep his head down.
Sixteen minutes after coming onto the field at Anfield, replacing Kevin Stewart, Woodburn netted the Reds’ second goal of the night to seal progress to the League Cup semi-finals.
In doing so, at 17 years and 45 days old, Woodburn shattered Michael Owen’s record to become the youngest player to score for Liverpool.
That Owen had held the title since 1997 is a testament to Woodburn’s achievement, but also the difficulties young players face in establishing themselves in the demanding Premier League era.
After making his mark against Leeds, Woodburn still faces a long road to become a regular in the Liverpool first team, as a number of his academy predecessors have underlined in recent years.
Woodburn’s Name in Lights
There is no denying the magnitude of Woodburn’s milestone, and the Wales youth international is deserving of the headlines and column inches featuring his name following Liverpool’s cup triumph.
Woodburn’s trajectory over the past two seasons has been remarkable, and symbolic of his development as a player.
In 2014/15, Woodburn was turning out for Des Maher’s U16s, before stepping up to Neil Critchley‘s U18s in 2015/16 and, this season, joining Michael Beale’s U23s in Premier League 2.
With Jurgen Klopp first handing him his first-team debut as a substitute in November’s 2-0 victory at home to Sunderland, and then another outing against Leeds in the League Cup, his progression has accelerated further.
“I only gave him the opportunity because I think he’s ready for it,” Klopp said before the Reds took on Garry Monk’s Championship outfit, and this certainly proved the case.
The Cheshire-born forward has been a prolific goalscorer at every level he has played at so far, from the U16s to the U23s, where he has five goals and five assists in 10 league games this season, to internationals and, after a promising pre-season, for Klopp’s senior side.
He has proved himself capable of scoring a variety of different goals, from his overhead kick for the U18s against Man United in January to his free-kick for the Wales U19s against Luxembourg in November.
Perhaps his best came against Cardiff City in the FA Youth Cup at the beginning of 2016, chesting down a 50-yard pass on the move before lobbing the Bluebirds’ goalkeeper with a hooked effort.
His goal against Leeds saw him blast the ball into an open net after an astute pass from Georginio Wijnaldum, but the composure required to do so in front of the Kop was considerable.
After the game, Woodburn drew plaudits from his team-mates to the likes of Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher, while Owen congratulated him on breaking his record and there were even calls for Wales manager Chris Coleman to hand him a first senior cap.
Following just 25 minutes on the pitch over two games, this is significant pressure on the teenager, and it would be wise to acknowledge the pitfalls in overhyping young players.
Merseyside’s Cautionary Tales
While both Owen and Liverpool’s fourth-youngest goalscorer, Raheem Sterling, went on to star in the Premier League and in Europe, another player to net early into his career saw his progress stall at Anfield.
Jordan Rossiter’s struck 10 minutes into the Reds’ League Cup third-round victory over Middlesbrough in 2014, aged 17 years and 183 days, and fell just shy of Owen’s long-standing record.
Merseyside born and bred, Rossiter was widely heralded as a future first-team star at Liverpool, with Fowler even labelling him as “potentially a young Stevie G” in 2013.
But with injuries taking their toll, and Jurgen Klopp‘s arrival seeing him fall out of favour, Rossiter left the club at the end of his contract in the summer, joining Rangers on a free transfer.
Now 19, Rossiter has made six appearances for the Scottish side this season, with his development plagued by further injuries.
Another young academy striker, Jerome Sinclair, became Liverpool’s youngest ever player when he came on against his former club, West Bromwich Albion, in the League Cup in 2012, at just 16 years and 6 days old.
Sinclair was regarded as a candidate for a regular senior role, and was initially included in Klopp’s squad on the German’s arrival last October, making two FA Cup appearances in 2015/16.
However, with his contract also running out in 2016, Sinclair opted to join fellow Premier League side Watford, where he is yet to make an appearance under Walter Mazzarri.
Furthermore, Jordon Ibe, Wycombe Wanderers’ youngest ever Football League player and goalscorer at the age of 15, was allowed to leave Liverpool this summer, joining Bournemouth for £15 million, with Klopp unconvinced of his quality.
One of Ibe’s former U21 team-mates, Andre Wisdom, joined the Reds as a 14-year-old in 2008 to considerable fanfare, with the former Bradford City youth star now on loan at Red Bull Salzburg.
Jack Robinson, the only player to turn out for the Reds in the Premier League at a younger age than Woodburn, is now with Queens Park Rangers, with injuries restricting him to 35 appearances over the past three seasons.
However, while recent history proves that breaking records does not guarantee long-term success, there is cause to argue that Woodburn is in the ideal environment to avoid these failings.
The Perfect Setup
Speaking after Woodburn’s landmark strike at Anfield, Klopp attempted to strike a balance between deserved praise for the youngster and caution surrounding his development.
“When he is on the pitch he is absolutely allowed to score goals,” he said. “I am really happy with him, the only problem is I am a little afraid about [the press].”
However, the German stressed that “we know how to handle the situation,” and as a manager with proven experience of nurturing young players into top-level stars, this is clearly the case.
Mario Gotze’s rise from the Borussia Dortmund academy to the Bundesliga title is perhaps the most fitting example, with the forward becoming Klopp’s protege during their time together at the Westfalenstadion.
In 2009/10, Klopp afforded Gotze 41 minutes on the pitch over five league outings, carefully managing his game time at the age of 17, and was rewarded with six goals and 15 assists in 33 Bundesliga games the following season.
Klopp, Zeljko Buvac and Peter Krawietz are well-versed in the nuances of youth development, while in Pepijn Lijnders, the manager has a coach who has monitored Woodburn’s progress closely.
Not only is Klopp the ideal manager to oversee Woodburn’s transition from academy to first team, but alongside him on the touchline as the 17-year-old struck against Leeds was a player with experience of the pressures of the English media on a young record-breaker.
James Milner became the Premier League‘s youngest goalscorer in Premier League history when he struck for Leeds against Sunderland on Boxing Day, 2002, followed by intense scrutiny.
Fourteen years later, in his position as Liverpool’s vice-captain, he is a shining example of establishing a consistent top-level career through commitment and graft.
Given that Woodburn is not alone as a hugely promising young talent in Klopp’s squad, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria both impressing against Leeds, he is well placed to continue his development comfortably.
His goal against Milner’s old side is only the start, and the hard work begins now for Woodburn.