Liverpool Football Club has a unique affinity with European football – something that James Norris is looking to continue with both the academy and first team.
There is something undeniably special that surrounds the club when the continent’s finest teams visit Merseyside to lock horns in usually high-stakes affairs.
For a generation of supporters, their fondest memories of the Reds in European action will have peaked when a fresh-faced David Fairclough sprang off the bench to fire a late winner in front of the Kop against St Etienne in 1977.
It was a goal that is viewed as kickstarting a defining period for Bob Paisley’s men in Europe as they went on to win back-to-back European Cups.
For others – perhaps those with more adolescent faces – their continental crescendo will have occurred closer to the present day. Possibly during the agonising wait for Luis Garcia’s faint touch to cross Petr Cech’s line in early May 2005 during a thrilling second leg against Chelsea, or even Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s perspicacious execution to catch Barcelona stone-cold on undoubtedly Anfield’s greatest night.
However, 18-year-old academy player James Norris has a more personal account of his most treasured Liverpool Champions League tale, which he details while exhibiting a beaming grin, recalling the crisp December afternoon when his wildest dreams came to fruition, in an exclusive interview with This Is Anfield.
Not long after the plane carrying him and his academy team-mates touched down in the city of Milan, after descending over the stunning view of the Swiss Alps, it was his under-23s coach Barry Lewtas who would reveal the jaw-dropping news to Norris.
Rather than featuring in the under-19s UEFA Youth League tie against AC Milan with those he had just travelled with, he and his close friend Max Woltman would be in Jurgen Klopp‘s 23-man squad that would take to one of the globe’s finest stadiums the following evening: the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, commonly known as the San Siro.
“It was unbelievable,” Norris explains as he fights back a reminiscing smile.
“We went to Milan expecting to play in the Youth League fixture and then when we arrived we got told we were going to the first-team hotel, me and Max.
“Barry Lewtas told us. Right after we landed, he got a text saying we were involved so we got a taxi to the first team hotel and waited for them to arrive from Liverpool.”
With Klopp’s side having already secured their safe passage into the round of 16 by the time they visited the region of Lombardy – after five wins from their opening five in Group B – it was a much-rotated squad that took to the hallowed turf of the San Siro, on an evening that yielded excessive amounts of pride for those involved with the club’s academy system.
Tyler Morton, Woltman, Neco Williams, Alexander-Arnold and Harvey Davies joined Norris in the 23-man squad that evening; with all six having progressed from the club’s pre-academy age.
And even though it has been Morton – the Wallasey-born no-nonsense midfielder – who has accumulated the most minutes out of the academy for the first team this season, Norris reveals it is a feat that the close-knit band of brothers celebrate extensively down in the Kirkby dressing rooms.
“Obviously, the prime example is Tyler. Every time he has played he has been brilliant,” says the 18-year-old defender.
“Especially against AC Milan, he had an unbelievable game against some of the best players in the world. That takes the fear away from stepping up [to the first team] because if Tyler can do it, there is no reason why we can’t.”
The wait for an Anfield debut
Despite not being selected by Klopp for any of his five substitutions during Liverpool’s concluding group stage fixture in Italy – for what would have been his second senior appearance for the Reds – it was a momentous experience many 18-year-old Scousers spend a childhood chasing, and yet still fall far below the required grade.
The left-back was handed his first appearance for the senior side by former youth coach Neil Critchley back in the winter of 2019. He came off the bench – etching his name into the Reds’ history books as their fourth-youngest-ever debutant – in the closing stages of spirited 5-0 defeat to Aston Villa – which saw the club’s youngest-ever starting XI at the time due to the first team’s Club World Cup triumph over in Qatar.
Nevertheless, as Liverpool were embroiled in one of their busiest fixture runs of the season in the middle of December, with games coming thick and fast from all directions, the wait for Norris’ next opportunity would feel like an eternity away, despite it only coming 33 days after his trip to mainland Europe, this time against Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup.
With 92 minutes already being played during Liverpool’s third-round tie against the League One side at Anfield earlier this year, the fear began to set in for the West Derby-born teen as the clock continued to tick at an alarming rate.
“It was getting a bit late in the game, so I didn’t know if I was going to get on,” he says accompanying his anecdote with a relieved chuckle.
“The manager pulled me and [Kostas] Tsimikas and said ‘get warm’, so I got my kit off and got ready as soon as possible. Because whether it was one or two minutes it was still great, not many people can say they have played for Liverpool’s first team.”
And despite being made to wait for the moment all academy hopefuls dream of from the age they first sign along the dotted line, Norris admits he had seen enough faith placed in his team-mates by Klopp to believe his opportunity wouldn’t be too far away:
“After seeing Tyler [Morton], Kaide [Gordon], Elijah [Dixon-Bonner] and Max [Woltman] all getting starts for the first team, it gives you that extra bit of motivation for when you go up there and get that chance off the manager, something he’s not afraid to do.”
Robbo the blueprint
While reflecting on a whirlwind couple of months for his boyhood club, Norris is quick to demonstrate the humble attitude that has helped him reach this level of the professional game, as he credits the senior figures of the Reds’ squad for helping him settle in when promoted to the senior side:
“Everyone puts an arm around you, but especially Sadio and Milly. They are the main two who have helped me when I have gone up there, they have helped me blend into the team nicely, so I can speak to people.
“When I went up there for AC Milan, because I had already been around there it wasn’t like I was going into a new group.”
It promises to be an exciting end to the season for the energetic full-back, who has been part of the youth setup since the age of eight, with his side still in the hunt for their maiden UEFA Youth League title.
There are also likely to be plenty of opportunities to impress Klopp between now and May, someone Norris takes pleasure in learning from.
“Training with Jurgen is a great experience. If there is information you need to be told he’s not scared to tell you and he’ll let you know,” he explains.
“I remember the first time I went up there I was a bit slow getting out to my man in the drills, and he just put an arm around me and went ‘you need to be quicker, you need to be sharper’.
“It’s like the blueprint of Andy Robertson; aggression, attacking and getting forward. He’s finding the perfect blueprint to follow.”
Norris played a key part in Liverpool’s progress to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League this week, with the young Reds to play Juventus in Turin on March 15 – aiming to make more European history for Liverpool FC.