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Liverpool decision to fast-track youngster pays off as new £3m signing shines – Liverpool Echo

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https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/liverpool-fast-track-new-signing-20711411

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It may not have resulted in silverware but the last week underlined why Liverpool’s Academy have every reason to be proud of their efforts over the campaign.

Given preparing youngsters for first-team football is the overriding aim, the sight of Conor Bradley trotting on for his international debut for Northern Ireland in their friendly win over Malta on Sunday was justification the work at Kirkby is coming to fruition.

“It was unreal,” said Bradley, who was introduced in the 85th minute by Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough. “When the gaffer came over to me and said ‘you’re getting on’, I had goosebumps. It was an unbelievable moment.

“I’m just trying to get back to the next training camps and keep trying to impress the manager and hopefully he keeps picking me.”

Bradley has been one of the undoubted success stories of the Liverpool Academy season and proof of the great strides that can be made should a youngster grasp his opportunity.

The 17-year-old right-back, who arrived at the Reds in 2019 from Dungannon United in his homeland, was fast-tracked to the U23s this season and featured in more than half of their games in Premier League 2.

And his age meant he remained eligible to feature in the FA Youth Cup, and played in the 2-1 final defeat at Aston Villa six days before his international bow.

Tyler Morton, another youngster whose progress has captured the attention, also stepped up to the U23s during the course of the season while featuring in the FA Youth Cup, the 18-year-old midfielder contributing 10 goals and seven assists in 25 games across all competitions.

Young U23s find it tough

It was a testing season for U23s coach Barry Lewtas in his first full season in the role, having to cope with perennial issues of players leaving on loan and moving up and down the age groups.

The Reds finished seventh out of 13 teams, although only three points behind third-placed Tottenham Hotspur.

Defensive solidity was a constant concern despite the consistent performances of Bradley and, in the left-back role, 18-year-old Owen Beck.

After a strong start with five wins from the first seven – including triumphs over Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal and a 5-3 thriller at Manchester United – a run of six games without a victory hampered progress, not helped by shipping seven goals at home to runaway champions Manchester City, four to Tottenham and six in the return against United.

There were issues up front with Paul Glatzel and Joe Hardy in and out the side through injury, while 18-year-old Layton Stewart’s breakthrough into the U23s was halted by serious knee injury in March.

Stewart had netted 17 goals in 18 games at Academy level up to that point, including 15 in 10 outings for the U18s.

“The league was competitive and obviously I have to say there were certain games I was disappointed in, like the home games against Manchester City and Manchester United, in certain moments of those games,” says Lewtas.

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“We have had such a young group this season and I think a few of them really learned the fine margins of the next level. Little mistakes can cost you goals and it’s not as easy against better players as the level gets higher.

“So it’s been a really good learning experience for the players and the progress and improvement they have made has been a real plus point.”

Ben Woodburn returned from a stint at Blackpool and impressed with his performances and professionalism during the second half of the season, while Liam Millar’s pre-Christmas form earned a loan spell at League One side Charlton Athletic.

Jake Cain, a regular on the bench in Europe for the first team, started the season strongly before suffering a dip while fellow midfielder Leighton Clarkson played in the Champions League dead rubber at FC Midtjylland in December.

Caoimhin Kelleher similarly made his senior bow and is now a first-team squad regular, and shot-stopper Jakub Ojrzynski was on the bench for the Premier League visit to Sheffield United.

And Brazilian goalkeeper Marcelo Pitaluga, a £1million arrival from Fluminese in October, was improving before his season was ended by injury in February.

U18s go close as Musialowski leads the way

The FA Youth Cup disappointment couldn’t overshadow an impressive campaign for Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s U18s.

The young Reds finished third behind Manchester United and champions Manchester City while producing free-flowing football that saw them net 75 goals in 24 league games.

Key to that were the eye-catching performances of 17-year-old Polish attacking midfielder Mateusz Musialowski, part of a pre-Brexit recruitment drive that saw Melkamu Fraudendorf and goalkeeper Fabian Mrozek also arrive last summer.

Frauendorf, a versatile winger, scored in both the semi-final and final of the FA Youth Cup, while midfielder James Balagizi shone with his power and forward threat while the busy Max Woltman filled the breach left by Stewart.

Kaide Gordon and James Norris of Liverpool during a training session at AXA Training Centre
(Image: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“It’s been a positive season,” says Bridge-Wilkinson. “We’ve had lots of boys that have achieved in games and we’ve had boys that have obviously moved forwards into training groups and games they’ve played with the U23s and been involved in first-team training.

“The boys have shown an awful lot of potential – but ultimately we’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to keep these boys hungry. We’re going to help them learn and adapt to the game even more so moving forwards.”

Left-back James Norris was a breakthrough star, while Billy Koumetio – still only 18 – played in the Champions League while splitting his time between the U18s and U23s.

Jarell Quansah, another centre-back, grew in stature when assuming the captaincy part-way through the season, while goalkeeper Harvey Davies gained experience travelling with the first team to Champions League games.

February signing Kaide Gordon, who could end up costing £3milllion from Derby County, ended the campaign with six goals in four U18s games as well as netting on his U23s debut against Leicester.

And Calum Scanlon, a December arrival as a 15-year-old from Birmingham, was given his U18s bow in the penultimate league game.

With a number of other U16 players stepping up during the final months of the season, Liverpool can expect more encouraging signs from the Academy next term.

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