Nearly 2 years ago, Liverpool’s history books were rewritten by a certain young man.
On as a substitute with the score at 0-0, Ben Woodburn was sent on by Jurgen Klopp to make an impact. That opportunity came when Origi and Wijnaldum combined in the 76th minute to set the teenager up. Presented with a free shot, Woodburn was never going to miss it and thumped the ball high into Marco Silvestri’s net.
Then just 17 years and 45 days old, Woodburn became Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer, eclipsing Michael Owen’s record by 98 days. Woodburn was living the dream, and that dream just got better a year later when he made his debut for Wales. Summoned from the bench yet again, Liverpool’s starlet produced a stunning strike to help his country beat Austria.
Since then however, things haven’t been quite so good for Woodburn. In fact, he’s recently been allowed by his loan club Sheffield United to turn out for Liverpool’s U23s. So how could a player once touted as the next Robbie Fowler find himself in such a situation?
Let’s take a look.
Last season, Woodburn’s development was halted by injuries which limited his involvement in the first team. Even then, he still managed to make the bench in the Champions League quarterfinal and semifinal. That was followed by a brief but welcome appearance in the final Premier League game at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.
With that 6-minute cameo representing the only meaningful minutes in a Red shirt, the question is: why didn’t he leave on loan in January? Sunderland, managed by ex-Wales manager Chris Coleman, were touted as one of the clubs in for Woodburn.
Away from the spotlight and under a manager who gave Woodburn his maiden international cap, the move made sense in all aspects. How it didn’t come to fruition is a big mystery, with some believing that Klopp was the one who stopped the move. Instead, it was fellow Academy graduate Harry Wilson that was allowed to go out on loan to Hull City.
That wasted opportunity could be a defining point in Woodburn’s young career, with him only able to look on as Wilson continued his development in the Championship. There, he scored 7 goals in 14 appearances to ensure his loan club stayed in the Championship. His regular appearances meant that he made the squad for Wales, with current coach Ryan Giggs making it clear that only players with regular playing time would be considered for the national team.
Wilson then further enhanced his reputation by netting stunning free kicks for current loan club Derby County and Wales. Those strikes further enhanced fans’ interest in the winger, while pushing Woodburn further into obscurity.
Having had his thunder stolen by a teammate, Woodburn had an important decision leading up to the 2018/19 season. Deciding that a loan spell would be the best move, Klopp allowed the youngster to join Championship side Sheffield United on a temporary basis.
But while the move may have been devised with Woodburn’s best interest at heart, things aren’t quite working out as they should be. Opportunities continue to be scarce for Woodburn, who has played just 144 minutes of Championship football spread over six appearances. His only goal for Sheffield came in the League Cup penalty shootout which his team lost 6-5 to Hull City in August, the teenager’s only 90-minute appearance for the club.
Having last made the squad on matchday 9 against Preston, Woodburn was left completely out of it for the next six games. His redundancy was made clear when Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder allowed the player to play for his parent club, albeit for the U23s.
Explaining the decision, Chris Wilder said: “Ben’s not a special case at all. We’ve got seven or eight players in the same boat as Ben Woodburn. Just because he’s come from Liverpool, he’s a talent, we understand he’s a good player, and he’s not done anything wrong. Just as the boys who have been playing haven’t done anything wrong either. Those players who aren’t playing, it is because our team and 18 has been settled.”
Obviously, Woodburn needs to be playing more regularly in order to continue his development. U23 action may serve as a good building block, with his recent 64 minutes outing against Derby County a good first step. Through those outings, Woodburn will be hoping to impress his coach at Sheffield United and be given more first team action. Harry Wilson’s meteoric rise is proof of how important it is to play in England’s second tier, and getting those Championship minutes is the next important step in Woodburn’s development.
Under the floodlights of Anfield on a November evening, Woodburn realised his dream. That dream is now looking more and more like a one off, unless Woodburn starts taking charge of his future. And with his contract expiring in the summer of 2019, time is running out for the youngster to make that change.