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Curtis Jones & Ben Woodburn’s anticlimactic summer is a warning on Liverpool fans’ hopes

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After starting the summer with renewed hopes, Curtis Jones and Ben Woodburn have been dealt frustrating blows, in a reminder for fans to temper expectations.

In Simon Hughes’ latest book ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’, Liverpool academy director Alex Inglethorpe explains the importance of local youngsters breaking through, and how Jurgen Klopp has embraced this.

“The player might not run as fast as a Salah or Firmino but he might run further because the starting point for his Liverpool career is earlier,” he said.

“And because of an in-built commitment to the shirt, it finishes much later.”

The primary factor behind a player’s integration from academy to first team is, of course, not geography or passport; Klopp emphasised as much in May.

“Just a normal football player with extraordinary skills,” he outlined as the prototype, with “talent, and an obvious football character” the key attributes.

But while Klopp himself acknowledged that he only sees “the icing of the cake,” for supporters, glimpses into the future are even hazier.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 9, 2015: Liverpool's Connor Randall and Jordan Rossiter during a training session at Melwood Training Ground ahead of the UEFA Europa League Group Stage Group B match against FC Sion. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Jordan Rossiter; Adam Phillips; Yan Dhanda; Joao Carlos Teixeira; Ovie Ejaria; Alex O’Hanlon; Pedro Chirivella; Kevin Stewart; Sheyi Ojo; Jordon Ibe; Sergi Canos; Conor Masterson; Jerome Sinclair; and so on.

Many players have risen through the ranks in recent years with expectations of a first-team breakthrough, only to fall by the wayside for a variety of reasons.

For some, it can be due to poor fortune: injuries, unlikely competition or off-field complications; for others, it can be down to poor decision-making: false promises from agents and clubs.

Some have simply opted to move on, not fancying their chances in the busy, ever-changing systems at Kirkby and Melwood, and gambling on securing regular first-team football elsewhere.

Two players have experienced this landscape during these few short weeks of Liverpool’s pre-season, with Jones and Woodburn both left out of the picture.

BIRKENHEAD, ENGLAND - Thursday, July 11, 2019: Liverpool's Curtis Jones celebrates scoring the fourth goal during a pre-season friendly match between Tranmere Rovers FC and Liverpool FC at Prenton Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

For Jones, the summer began as one of promise, and arriving as one of the Reds’ first group back he set out an ambitious target for 2019/20.

“I definitely think that I’ve got it in me and I have definitely got a manager who believes in me,” he told LFCTV, with his Premier League debut the aim.

The 18-year-old was among the most consistently impressive players in Liverpool’s opening friendlies against Tranmere and Bradford, and held his own on the US tour too.

Given his versatility, height, pace, skill and end product, at four years younger and with considerable potential, Jones seems to represent a better option to supplement the senior squad than Harry Wilson.

But ahead of the 3-0 loss to Napoli in Edinburgh, the Scouser was unceremoniously cut from the squad along with Woodburn and Nat Phillips.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK, USA - Wednesday, July 24, 2019: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during a friendly match between Liverpool FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal at the Yankee Stadium on day nine of the club's pre-season tour of America. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“We have players coming back so we decided they don’t train with us,” Klopp explained, pointing to the returns of Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino for the training camp in Evian.

“That’s it, the number of players we have, we don’t need the numbers and they can have pre-season with under-23s, having games and sessions.”

With the likes of Adam Lewis, Yasser Larouci, Bobby Duncan and new signing Harvey Elliott included, it is clear this wasn’t purely making room for established seniors: it was a straight demotion.

Woodburn has since joined Oxford United on a season-long loan, after himself not only impressing in the first weeks of pre-season, but earning praise from Klopp.

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA, USA - Friday, July 19, 2019: Liverpool's Ben Woodburn during a friendly match between Liverpool FC and Borussia Dortmund at the Notre Dame Stadium on day four of the club's pre-season tour of America. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The manager described his performance against Tranmere as “probably the best game I saw [since] he’s back,” adding that “he is really physically strong now,” and “he is fresh again, sharp again.”

Many questionable decisions have been made regarding Woodburn’s development in recent years—from a year spent training at Melwood but barely playing for either academy or first team, to an ill-planned loan to Sheffield United.

And few could argue that the Wales international warranted a place in Klopp’s squad heading into the new campaign.

But previous portrayals of both him and Jones as the ‘next big thing’ on Merseyside paint this disappointing juncture as a warning for supporters’ hopes.

Though Klopp is willing to give, and has given, many young players an opportunity in the first team, few cement themselves as long-term fixtures.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is the clear role model here, but there are significantly more who fall short of outside expectations.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, January 30, 2016: Liverpool's Cameron Brannagan in action against West Ham United during the FA Cup 4th Round match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Woodburn arrives at the Kassam Stadium to be reunited with another ex-Reds midfielder in Cameron Brannagan, who himself was touted as ‘one for the future’ during Klopp’s reign.

Brannagan made his debut under Brendan Rodgers in 2015, but eight of his nine appearances for the club came following Klopp’s appointment later in the year.

The German prompted a new contract for the midfielder shortly after his move to Merseyside, and claimed Brannagan had “everything you need for a midfield player,” as “he wants to play football, he’s strong, he’s clear, he’s cool.”

After making his first Premier League start on the final day of 2015/16, talks were instigated over another extension to the youngster’s deal, seven months after his last, amid interest from both Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But following aborted loan moves to Wigan and Bolton, Brannagan joined Oxford for just £200,000 in January of last year.

EXETER, ENGLAND - Friday, January 8, 2016: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp talks to Cameron Brannagan before the FA Cup 3rd Round match against Exeter City at St. James Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Now 23, he has made 65 appearances for the U’s, scoring six goals and laying on six assists, winning the club’s Player’s Player of the Year award in April.

Brannagan is forging a solid career in League One, but it is a far cry from the trajectory mapped out by many supporters and journalists upon his emergence under Klopp less than four years ago.

And while Jones seemingly has time on his side at just 18, and could still work his way back in by impressing as part of the U23s setup, Woodburn’s hopes are slimmer.

Yet to nail down a defined role or position, and having made just 11 appearances for Liverpool following his debut in 2016, the club’s youngest-ever scorer has been left to drop down to League One in order to revive his prospects.

BRADFORD, ENGLAND - Saturday, July 13, 2019: Liverpool substitutes Bobby Duncan, Curtis Jones, Adam Lewis and Ben Woodburn on the bench before a pre-season friendly match between Bradford City AFC and Liverpool FC at Valley Parade. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“Obviously I know Cam Brannagan, so I think it is a good fit for me in my career at this moment in time,” Woodburn told Oxford’s official website on making the move.

“I think it’s a stepping stone that I need to push on.”

If he shines under Karl Robinson and reclaims a first-team place at Liverpool, it would be a remarkable feat.

And while the hope is they can do so, both Woodburn and Jones appear to be falling foul of a familiar trope of young players being exposed, expectations rising, and hopes being dashed.

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