ANFIELD, Liverpool — November 29 was a date already etched into Liverpool history, for it was the date that Steven Gerrard made his debut back in 1998. And exactly 18 years on, Ben Woodburn wrote his name into the history books in a 2-0 EFL Cup quarter-final victory over Leeds United.
Firing into the Kop goal in the 81st minute, Woodburn became Liverpool's youngest goalscorer at just 17 years and 45 days—eclipsing Michael Owen's record by 100 days, which had stood since 1997.
Woodburn wasn't even born when Owen netted against Wimbledon, or when Gerrard made his debut for the Reds. Indeed, Woodburn—born in 1999—has never seen Merseyside rivals Everton win a trophy or even a game at Anfield.
Having been handed his debut for the club three days earlier in stoppage time against Sunderland, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp resisted the temptation to start the youngster as Leeds United arrived for the EFL Cup quarter-final match. Instead, Woodburn arrived into the action as a 67th-minute substitute.
Incredibly, he could have had a goal with his first touch, but Georginio Wijnaldum took on a shot himself rather than square to Woodburn for a tap-in. The Dutchman's shot rebounded off the post and just went wide of the youngster's foot.
But 10 minutes later, Wijnaldum played in Woodburn on the edge of the six-yard box for the Wales youth international to volley into the Kop goal. History made.
Attention now turns to ensuring Woodburn stays grounded, and that the media and supporters do not get carried away by the Reds' latest teenage sensation.
"I am really happy with him, the only problem is I am a little afraid about you [the media]," said Klopp post-match. "We know how to handle the situation. I can say whatever I want but if he scores goals, it's difficult to stay cool from your side, no problem."
If ever you needed a manager to keep a player grounded, Klopp is the right man for the job. "First of all I said [to him] well done, but it was not too difficult, I would have scored too," joked the Reds' boss.
Whenever a teenage goalscorer emerges, whether it be Owen in 1997 or Robbie Fowler before him, there's a general pattern that means fans start to become aware of the player in the year before they get their first-team debut.
For Woodburn, he arrived on to fans' radars when he scored an outrageous goal for Liverpool's under-18s against Cardiff City in the FA Youth Cup in January.
Woodburn, playing from the left of the young Reds' attack, controlled a 60-yard pass from Adam Phillips on to his chest before casually lobbing the ball over the 'keeper's head with his side-foot.
While Klopp seeks calm over Woodburn's emergence into the first-team picture, with goals like that it's easy to see why fans and media may get carried away.
His rise has been as quick as it has for other teenage talents, starting the 2014/15 season with Liverpool's under-16s, last term with the under-18s and this campaign with the under-23s after a summer spent with the first-team.
"Six weeks ago Ben was training with my under-16 group and here he is playing for the first team in pre-season," explained under-16s coach Des Maher.
But despite the initial hype after those goals, Klopp managed the situation well, opting not to take Woodburn to the first-team's pre-season training camp in America and instead making it clear he would have a season spent developing in Michael Beale's under-23s side.
"Ovie Ejaria, Trent Alexander[-Arnold], Ben Woodburn, they’ll come back and join this group," explained Beale to the Liverpool Echo's Andy Kelly in July. "We’ll see how it works. For some clubs it will be very beneficial, it means their first team can drop five or six [players into the U23s] from their bench the day before. Jurgen can use the U23s as he sees fit."
That all three referenced by Beale put in impressive showings against Leeds showed how well Klopp and his staff have handled their development this season.
Woodburn has continued to shine for Beale's side, scoring five and assisting five in 10 Premier League 2 appearances so far this season. He also has two goals for Wales under-19s and another two in a friendly against Brentford.
Comparisons and Development
Inevitably, Woodburn is already being compared to the prolific Fowler and Owen, who emerged from Liverpool's academy as teenagers and went on to score 183 and 158 goals, respectively, for the Reds.
Woodburn, who signed a new contract at the club earlier this month, certainly has an eye for goal, but he's not played as a traditional centre-forward, instead playing from the left in either a 4-2-3-1 shape or a 4-3-3—which perhaps makes his goalscoring exploits even more impressive.
Being right-footed, he cuts in from the left to arrive into the box and get his goals from there. So in many ways, at least positionally at this stage of his development, he is very different to Owen and Fowler, who both progressed as centre-forwards within a 4-4-2 shape in the '90s.
Whether Woodburn will later move to become a central striker only time will tell. It would, naturally, require him developing physically so that he can compete against Premier League centre backs—something that Roberto Firmino has worked on since moving to become a No. 9 under Klopp this season.
He's clearly a clinical finisher, composed and level-headed, and he has all the attributes required, but development cannot be guaranteed—just ask Everton's youngest scorer, James Vaughan.
What Woodburn has on his side is a very strong group around him to give him the best chance to be a success.
68th minute: Ben Woodburn subbed on for Liverpool— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 29, 2016
81st minute: Ben Woodburn scores his first senior goal for Liverpool
A star is born. 🌟 pic.twitter.com/8qHKsHfFfD
Interestingly, he's the first player to arrive from the academy who has worked closely with coach Pepijn Lijnders since the Dutchman's arrival at the club two-and-a-half years ago. Lijnders is renowned as an expert individual coach, and after initially arriving to work with the under-16s, he's since become the club's first-team development coach, working extensively with those academy players arriving into the first-team mix.
"Under the guidance of our first-team development coach Pepijn Lijnders, he has come on in leaps and bounds," explained Maher in the summer.
"You should position players within the team formation as a permanent position," he said, per the European Coaching Corner blog (h/t DasWunderkind.net). "This will accommodate the opportunity of the players to develop their own style, thus optimising their play within that position. This happens far too little, and that is the reason why there is a lack of positional specialists."
That could then mean that Liverpool, Lijnders and Klopp are seeking to make Woodburn a specialist in that left-side, attacking role.
Meanwhile, Klopp has shown his expertise in developing young players, having worked with Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender, Marcel Schmelzer, Kevin Grosskreutz, Mario Gotze and Ilkay Gundogan all before they were aged 20. Gotze was 17 when he first worked with Klopp.
So often the cliche, but the hard work starts now for Woodburn—his profile has been raised with one historic strike of the right boot.
* Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.