KIRKBY, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 10, 2019: Liverpool's Neco Williams during the Under-23 FA Premier League 2 Division 1 match between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC at the Academy. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Why Neco Williams’ first-team exposure at Liverpool was a long time coming

Neco Williams was a surprise inclusion in Liverpool’s dramatic League Cup win over Arsenal in October, but the right-back certainly deserved it.

When the team news broke 75 minutes before kickoff at Anfield, the night before Halloween, there will have been a few confused faces among the Reds support.

It was a night that Harvey Elliott was long-fated to make history as the youngest Liverpool player to feature at the famous stadium, and he joined familiar young faces like Caoimhin Kelleher, Sepp van den Berg and Rhian Brewster in the side.

But Williams’ name was less heralded; an academy graduate who had not even played for Jurgen Klopp‘s side in pre-season, unlike Kelleher, Van den Berg, Elliott, Brewster, Yasser Larouci, Pedro Chirivella and Curtis Jones.

By the 94th minute, he was being patched into headlines across the country, as the supplier for a remarkable late equaliser from Divock Origi, to make it 5-5 and send the tie to penalties.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Liverpool's Neco Williams celebrates after setting-up the fifth goal in injury time to seal a 505 draw and send the game to a penalty shoot out during the Football League Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 5-4 on penalties after a 5-5 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Williams didn’t take a spot-kick, instead spending most of the pre-shootout briefing receiving treatment from Andreas Kornmayer due to cramp, but his performance was arguably the standout on a wild night.

Klopp described his display as “incredible,” and the Welshman’s numbers spoke for themselves: more touches (110), more tackles (four) and more interceptions (four) than any of his team-mates, plus the game-changing assist.

He produced a performance that showcased his strengths as an attacking full-back perfectly, but he also paired that with a committed, concentrated defensive edge.

It has been depicted as a fairytale, a rare story of a youngster plucked from Kirkby obscurity to star in the cup for Liverpool.

But while it was certainly a life-affirming moment, and one that could boost Williams’ career tenfold, those with a more long-standing appreciation of the right-back will have seen it as reward for a slow-burning rise.

KIRKBY, ENGLAND - Friday, March 31, 2017: Liverpool's Neco Williams takes a throw-in against West Ham United during an Under-18 FA Premier League Merit Group A match at the Kirkby Academy. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Williams joined Liverpool as a six-year-old, at pre-academy level, spotted while playing for his local side Cefn United, and upon reaching the age of nine he opted to sign full-time with the Reds, turning down Man United.

Having been converted from attack to right-back, he made his under-18s debut three months before his 16th birthday, starting in a 1-0 victory over Newcastle in 2017.

It came, tellingly, a day after Steven Gerrard returned to the club as a youth coach, and the role of Liverpool’s legendary former captain has been key to Williams’ development.

The youngster’s team-mates that day included Kelleher, Jones, Adam Lewis, Bobby Adekanye, Rafa Camacho and Liam Millar, while Conor Masterson, Anthony Glennon, Yan Dhanda and Herbie Kane were also in the squad that season.

While that crop swiftly gained more admirers at senior level—four have played for Liverpool’s first team, Lewis is on the fringes, and the rest have gained experience elsewhere—it took Williams longer to break through.

That could be attributed to a back injury that saw him miss the first half 2017/18; a major setback after playing all but one game for the U18s after his debut in the second half of 2016/17, and one which he will manage throughout his career.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Friday, March 9, 2018: Liverpool's Neco Williams during the Under-23 FA Premier League 2 Division 1 match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But returning to make his first start back in a 3-2 loss to Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup at Anfield, a year on from his debut, he received glowing praise from Gerrard.

“That was the performance of someone who looked like he had never been out of the team,” the then-U18s manager said.

“He was magnificent. I was excited about him last season when I shadowed Neil Critchley. He was giving a couple of years away in that team.

“Now I am excited to have him back. He deserves a lot of praise for that performance.”

Williams didn’t stay with the U18s for long, though, making his under-23s debut in a 1-0 loss to West Ham in February 2018; he was still only 16, but cemented himself as a regular for Critchley.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Thursday, April 25, 2019: Liverpool's Welsh duo Neco Williams (L) and Morgan Boyes (R) celebrate with the trophy after the FA Youth Cup Final match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the Academy Stadium. Liverpool won 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 extra-time draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Like Elijah Dixon-Bonner, Williams has been used across the age groups in recent seasons, and was part of the U18s squad that won the FA Youth Cup, along with being a staple for the under-19s on their return to the UEFA Youth League.

This season so far, he has already made 16 appearances for the academy, scoring three goals and laying on two assists.

That, along with being a mainstay with the Wales U19s, has seen Williams accrue considerable experience, but he was rarely spoken of as a likely candidate to step up to the first team.

Part of that will be due to the rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the player he filled in so adeptly for in the League Cup.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, August 8, 2019: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold poses for photograph with a mural of himself on the side of a building in Sybil Road, Anfield. The mural was commissioned by The Anfield Wrap and painted by local artist Akse P19. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As much as Alexander-Arnold is held up as an example for the Reds’ academy, his top-level form can be seen as a roadblock for not only Williams, but Ki-Jana Hoever too.

With Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne available as backups to the No. 66 over the years, there has been little need for another young right-back.

It is a scenario Jones will also be familiar with, as he competes with a stacked midfield and a world-class attack.

That is not to say Williams hasn’t been playing to eye-catching standards since his U18s debut, though, as five months shy of his 19th birthday he is already considered one of the most dependable, senior figures in the academy.

But it made that night against Arsenal all the more important, and having trained with Klopp’s squad on a day-to-day basis since mid-October, the opportunities should continue.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Liverpool players Joe Gomez, Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott, Divock Origi, James Milner, Curtis Jones and Rhian Brewster celebrate during the penalty shoot out after the Football League Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 5-4 on penalties after a 5-5 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“I’ve known Curtis since we were about seven, eight,” Williams told LFCTV‘s The Academy show.

“So to see both of us now, me making my debut, Curtis scoring the final penalty at the Kop end, is just a dream come true.

“To see us both do that, at that level, is just unbelievable.”

To debut at Anfield was the perfect start for Williams, who has watched the footage of his assist for Origi “100s of times” since, and the right-back reflected on the “great feeling” of being swarmed by his team-mates in celebration.

“I just turned straight to the Kop and I was just trying to soak it all in, all the atmosphere,” he continued.

“Then I turned around and no one was with Divock, they were coming straight to me, so obviously that meant something to the players. It was a great feeling.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Liverpool's Neco Williams lines-up to make his debut before the Football League Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

With the quarter-final trip to Aston Villa coming up, and the majority of Klopp’s senior players heading to Qatar to play in the Club World Cup instead, Williams should make his second appearance for the club on December 17.

It will be a different opportunity, with the manager watching from afar instead of the dugout, but the new No. 76 has the right attitude to ensure his focus remains the same.

“Nothing’s changed just because I’ve made my debut now, that just makes me want to work harder to get more opportunities,” he said.

“So I’ve just got to keep going, keep fighting and hopefully more opportunities will come.

“But when I drop down with the U23s, nothing changes, the same attitude, the same mentality. You’ve just got the keep the same and keep fighting for more opportunities.

“Just because now I’ve made one appearance, and made my debut, I’ve nowhere near made it.

“I’ve got to keep going, keep working hard, keep fighting for more opportunities with the senior team; I’ve just got to keep going.”

GENK, BELGIUM - Wednesday, October 23, 2019: Liverpool's Neco Williams during the pre-match warm-up before the UEFA Youth League Group E match between KRC Genk Under-19's and Liverpool FC Under-19's at the KRC Genk Arena Stadium B. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Williams signed his first professional contract with Liverpool in January and is tied to the club until 2021, when he will still only be 20, but his ambition will be to establish himself as a first-team regular beyond that point in a year-and-a-half.

His recognition by Klopp and his backroom staff is a long time coming, and now impressing the manager on the training pitch, his years of consistently strong performances in the academy should now be repaid.