From Liverpool Historian to Forgotten Man at Anfield – The Curious Case of Ben Woodburn

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The smile could have brightened the Albert Dock.

Wide-eyed and incredulous, Ben Woodburn stretched out his arms and walked towards the head. The face said it all.

“Did that really just happen?”

He had just made Liverpool history. At just 17 years and 45 days, he was the club’s youngest goalscorer in his second professional appearance, breaking the record set by Michael Owen 19 years earlier.

The quarter-finals of the League Cup Liverpool and Leeds had last met in a competitive match as of Saturday, but when the teams renewed their rivalries in the Premier League at Anfield Road last weekend, Woodburn was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, he would come out the next day and lead the Reds U23 side in the season opener against Everton in Kirkby.

After four years as a senior, Woodburn – or Liverpool, for that matter – never imagined he would be.

It’s supposed to be on loan this week. Sparta Rotterdam are the favorites to sign him, however target understands that Hull City has shown great interest as well. In private, Liverpool would prefer to go to the Eredivisie than the first division. They think he’s better suited for the league.

Either way, his career will continue outside of Merseyside.

Alex Inglethorpe, the Reds ‘academy director, once said he had the potential to make “hundreds” of appearances for the Reds’ first team, but the truth is it’s hard to see him add to his current record, which came in at 11 lies.

HD Ben Woodburn Gate Liverpool versus Leeds

He lasted a little over 70 minutes against Everton before being replaced by Elijah Dixon-Bonner.

There was an odd flash of quality – a pass with the outside of his foot on Jack Bearne particularly stood out – but little else to show that this player was once rated alongside, or perhaps even above, Trent Alexander-Arnold in terms of potential for the first Team. To be honest, he looked like an ordinary U23 footballer.

Woodburn clearly needs games and he needs confidence. He will be 21 in October and so far has only made 35 professional club appearances.

Alexander-Arnold made 135 by comparison, while Ovie Ejaria, who is two years older but showed up at the same time, got 103. Ejaria left Liverpool permanently this summer and moved to the Reading championship.

A little more luck for Woodburn wouldn’t hurt. This will be his third loan, and the other two ended in disappointment for one reason or another.

During the 2018/19 season he made only eight appearances at Sheffield United, then in the championship. Only two of them were starts and in the second, against Norwich, he was substituted at half time.

He had signed a full season contract but at times couldn’t even sit on the bench and returned to Liverpool in January. Without him, the blades made it to the top division.

Last season the decision was made to loan Woodburn to Oxford in League One. Their manager, Karl Robinson, was a fan, with a reputation for both developing young players – Dele Alli flourished under his leadership at MK Dons – and attractive, attacking football.

Woodburn started well enough at Kassam Stadium. He started games, scored his first senior team goal at Bristol Rovers and began influencing the game with his touch, awareness and decision-making in October. He had settled down, on and next to the square.

Ben Woodburn Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool GFX

Then came the nightmare.

A tackle from Accrington Stanley defender Callum Johnson, who has since joined Portsmouth, has left Woodburn with a broken foot. He would be out for up to 12 weeks and his swing would be slowed down at the most inopportune time.

He returned to Liverpool for treatment and was ahead of his recovery when he took part in a training game at Melwood in December and suffered an almost identical injury, this time to his other foot.

“He was desperate,” said Robinson. “It’s so frustrating because he was so close.”

The coronavirus lockdown naturally meant it would be another six months before he could play again. He returned for Oxford’s play-offs against Portsmouth and scored a goal when the US won a tense penalty shoot-out in the semi-final second leg, but he would stay on the bench for the final and only show up as Robinson’s side for the final seconds Wembley beaten by Wycombe.

The hope is that a new credit and environment will revive it. Woodburn returned to Liverpool in August, but not to Melwood, but to Kirkby.

While players like Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott are establishing themselves as first-team players, the Welsh international – he has 10 caps and two goals, including one on his debut against Austria – has fallen by the wayside. He’s only 20, but that already feels like a big summer and a big loan to him.

It should be said that the academy’s staff had no complaints about his fitness or attitude. They never have. He has a lot of fans in Liverpool, which he came to when he was seven, even if his star didn’t shine as brightly as many had hoped.

People like Inglethorpe and Barry Lewtas can’t talk enough about him. Even at Sheffield United, where it didn’t work out for him, staff and players fondly remember him.

But first he has to look elsewhere. He has to play, he has to leave the disappointment of the last two seasons behind and enjoy his football again.

He’s a talented young man who needs a chance, a little self-confidence, and a little bit of luck.

Hopefully it won’t be long before he smiles again.


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