Liverpool academy midfielder Jake Cain became one of the latest to make his senior debut this season, with this a reward for his progress at Kirkby.
Cain was among five youngsters to make their first outing for the Reds as they sealed a 1-0 win over Shrewsbury in their FA Cup fourth round replay.
The midfielder joined Adam Lewis and Liam Millar in the club’s youngest-ever starting lineup, before Elijah Dixon-Bonner and Joe Hardy were afforded their bows from the substitutes’ bench.
It was Cain’s first taste of senior football, under two years on from his debut for the under-18s—which came during Steven Gerrard’s time in charge of the young Reds.
He was just 16 that day, and it wasn’t until last season that the Wigan native established himself as a regular at that level, but that campaign soon saw him catch the eye.
His rise has coincided with that of Clarkson, with U18s manager Barry Lewtas describing the pair as “partners in crime,” and it seems as though their individual successes spur each other on.
In 2018/19, Cain scored three and assisted 13 in 30 appearances for the academy, while Clarkson scored four and assisted 10 in 35; only Rafa Camacho (24), Paul Glatzel (39) and Bobby Duncan (46) directly contributed to more goals.
Many would have expected the pair to make the move up to the under-23s on a regular basis at the start of this season, and rightly so.
But unlike Dixon-Bonner, Glatzel, Yasser Larouci, Morgan Boyes and others, they remained in Lewtas’ ranks.
It proved a sensible decision, as the routinely inconsistent nature of Neil Critchley‘s squad has seen the U23s’ results suffer, while the U18s are six points behind Man City at the top of the league with two games in hand.
Cain’s form and fitness endured: he made the joint-second most appearances (24) and the second-most starts (21) for the academy in the first half of the season, with the third-most goals (seven) and the joint-second most assists (nine).
And the usual mid-season reshuffle has now provided his opportunity as a regular with the U23s which, in turn, handed him his chance as Critchley took the helm in the FA Cup.
Liverpool could have been forgiven for struggling under the pressure at Anfield, but from the first whistle the youngest side in the club’s history took the fight to Shrewsbury.
Neco Williams earned the Man of the Match award, while Curtis Jones dominated the headlines as a record-breaking captain, and the likes of Chirivella, Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott were all earmarked for their contribution.
But from one end of the pitch to the next, the young Reds were outstanding, pinning their League One opposition back and carving out chance after chance.
Shrewsbury manager Sam Ricketts conceded after the game that his players “just couldn’t get up to the physicality levels to play a game of football,” adding that “we were far too passive.”
It was a solid deflection tactic to focus on it being “game 39” in their long season, but Critchley’s side deserve all the credit for outplaying a side significantly more experienced than themselves.
One of the key factors behind Liverpool’s overwhelming approach was the relentless pressing of Clarkson and Cain, with Lewtas noting in the past how the latter has become “extremely trustworthy off the ball.”
“He is certainly someone who buys into the style of football we are trying to produce then replicate on a matchday,” the U18s coach said in 2018, with his diligence now complemented by increasing productivity in the final third.
Cain is a combative, creative midfielder at his best linking play in the final third, with his first instinct always to play the ball forward.
Anfield witnessed this as he released Clarkson with a dinked ball over the defence in the first half, with Williams unfortunate not the convert the resulting cross at 0-0.
He has honed his finishing ability both inside and outside the box, too, with a whipped shot from range becoming a trademark move in recent months.
These qualities combined provide a flexible, multifaceted midfielder who is ever-reliable for the young Reds—only Dixon-Bonner has made as many appearances so far this season (29)—and this should endear him to Klopp as he watches on.
There is plenty of work to be done, but having only turned 18 in September, Cain has time on his side, and it would be no surprise if him and Clarkson were seen more regularly at Melwood in the near future.