The Dutch defender has brought a feel-good factor to the Reds’ Academy according to under-18s coach Barry Lewtas
It’s not just the first team at Liverpool who have their eyes on silverware in 2019.
But while Jurgen Klopp’s squad plot their assault on the Premier League and Champions League, the Reds’ under-18 side will be competing on no fewer than four fronts.
Top of the league, into the last 16 of the UEFA Youth League and with a Premier League Cup clash against Manchester United to look forward to later this month, it promises to be a thrilling few months for Barry Lewtas’ team.
It gets underway on Monday night, as the young Reds take on Accrington Stanley in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup, at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium. Lewtas, an upbeat, positive character, is suitably excited about the prospect.
“I am enjoying being part of it and I’m privileged to lead the team in it,” he says.
“We want to win it and we’ll go full at it. It does carry a lot of prestige, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Unlike its senior version, the Youth Cup remains very much the glamour competition where coaches are concerned, and the names of the players who have lit it up simply trip off the tongue. Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher, Theo Walcott, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Gareth Bale all enhanced their reputations at this level, while recent finals have seen the likes of Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi shine.
With Chelsea, who have appeared in nine of the last 11 finals, already eliminated, Lewtas’ side, who saw off Portsmouth in the third round, will fancy their chances of going deep in the competition. With the prolific strike duo Paul Glatzel and Bobby Duncan, they should have the firepower to worry any opponent.
Behind them, there is clear talent in the likes of Luis Longstaff, recruited from Newcastle, from Yasser Larouci, the left-sided Frenchman, and from midfielders Leighton Clarkson and Elijah Dixon-Bonner, the England under-17 international.
Unfortunately, we may need to wait for another glimpse of Anfield’s new hottest prospect. Ki-Jana Hoever, who made his senior Reds debut in the FA Cup against Wolves a fortnight ago, would have been a guaranteed starter tonight were it not for a knock picked up in training last week. As it stands, he is unlikely to feature against Accrington.
Still, the defender’s progression since his summer switch to Merseyside from Ajax has brought a feel-good factor to the Reds’ Academy. They talk about ‘pathways’ a lot at Kirkby, and the sight of the Dutchman becoming the third-youngest debutant in the club’s history at Molineux offers the perfect example to both coaches and players. Even better that Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho, 17 and 18 respectively, made their senior bows in the same game. Lewtas, of course, worked with both during his spell as under-16s coach.
“It’s a big motivation for us coaches, to be working with players that could end up being required by the first team,” he says. “And it must be a big motivation for the boys as well when they see their peers being asked to go up and train or play.
“We were in the airport on the way back from a tournament in Germany before the [Wolves] game, and few of the boys were speaking to Curtis on FaceTime. They are team-mates, but they’re also friends.
“We certainly use it in terms of showing them that there is a pathway here. If you train hard, if you perform and get the opportunity to go to Melwood then you need to take that chance.
“The boys who have gone up there have certainly impressed. If you are capable of doing that the manager will keep you there and work with you.”
Hoever’s story is a case in point. He only turned 17 on Friday and only made his under-18s debut in September, but his natural talent, allied to a rock-solid attitude and impressive physical attributes meant he was swiftly moved up to Neil Critchley’s under-23 side.
And with Klopp’s defensive options decimated by injury over the Christmas period, there was no hesitation in sending the teenager up to Melwood to train. There, Hoever held his own against the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, earning himself a chance when Klopp rotated for the cup.
“We flew back from Germany so I had to rush home to watch the game,” says Lewtas. “I got in just in time.
“And when [Dejan] Lovren got injured and the camera panned to Trent [Alexander-Arnold], I thought ‘interesting, Trent playing centre back?’ Then I saw Ki-Jana put his top on, it was like ‘wow!’”
So what did he make of his performance?
“Listen, I can’t lay claim to Ki-Jana because he hasn’t been here that long but I was nervous, especially when he started taking everyone on!” he says. “Basically, you don’t want him to fail on the things you’ve worked with him on in training!
“But I thought he showed an awful lot of composure against an experienced team. He was very mature and did ever so well.
“It’s great. Wherever you work, if someone gets a promotion, you’re chuffed for them, as long as they aren’t taking your spot! I’m made up for all three of them. Curtis has been here an extremely long time. To walk in here at the age of seven or eight and then pull on the shirt for the first team was great for him.
“It was nice to speak to Ki-Jana’s dad in Holland and hear how happy he was. There’s a real feel-good factor when it happens.”
The attention garnered by such an assured display was natural, but they are understandably keen to preach caution at Kirkby. The life of a talented young footballer, after all, will contain many ups and many downs.
Hoever has already experienced the other side. His next game after Wolves was for Liverpool’s under-23 team against Brighton. He was sent off, harshly, inside 25 minutes.
“The boys know it,” Lewtas says. “It’s not all pats on the back here. It’s tough, and they realise the journey will have ups and downs.
“Ki-Jana has already had that with the red card so he knows there will be bumps in the road. They all do.”
Lewtas is typically measured when asked if players are now required to be “ready” for first-team football at a younger age. Can a player, for example, make it at Liverpool at, say, 20 or 21 years of age, or does it have to happen sooner?
“Every player is different, and every journey is different,” he says. “Someone like Ki-Jana comes in and makes his debut at 16, or Curtis at 17. For others, it may not happen until you’re 20 or 21, or you might need a couple of loans first.
“That’s just how it is. It’s just dependent. Sancho and Foden, for example, were just good players at 16/17.
“Some of the boys get a chance but they have only played one game so far. Their journeys still have a long way to go to become established first team players. Even someone like Foden, he’s only started a handful of games. He’s not established yet.
“When you get the chance, the trick is to stick at it and keep it. Trent has gone in, impressed, fitted in with the group, performed well and stuck around.
“Your position matters, too. There are not many centre-backs playing in the Premier League at 16 or 17. It’s a position that comes with maturity.
“Look at Virgil van Dijk, he’s 27. His journey to become one of the best defenders in the world has maybe taken 10 years.
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“I certainly wouldn’t be writing young players off. It’s about position, time and exposure.”
And as for Hoever, where does he see his long-term prospects – at centre-back or as a full-back?
“It’s difficult to say,” Lewtas smiles. “He’s got attributes that cover both positions which is the real beauty. That’s similar to a lot of the first team players.
“Look at Joe Gomez, he can play right-back and centre-back and is accomplished at both. Ki-Jana got his break at centre-back but his athleticism means he could cope at full-back as well.
“As he develops, he will learn more about his game playing against men and we’ll learn more about his game and it will evolve. It’ll be interesting to see.”
Liverpool take on Accrington Stanley at the Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens tonight, Monday January 21, kick off 7pm. Tickets are priced at £3 for adults and £1 for concessions, with entry free for LFC season ticket holders and Members.