Perhaps the most infamously incorrect piece of punditry in the history of English football came after a game at Villa Park. “You can’t win anything with kids,” Alan Hansen said after a 3-1 Aston Villa victory over Manchester United.
Nine months later, those kids – David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers – were celebrating winning the Double.
A quarter of a century later, Liverpool will look to disprove one of their greatest defender's theory. Should they win the League Cup, they will have done so with kids. And, unlike that United side, only kids. With the first-team squad in Qatar, the youngest starting line-up in their history – a distinction currently held by the group, with an average age of 21 years and 296 days, who faced Plymouth two years ago – will take on Villa in the quarter final on Tuesday.
They will also be the least experienced. There are just 18 first-team appearances between those who could play; two of those were made by Rhian Brewster and the Under-17 World Cup-winning striker is a doubt.
The 22-year-old Spanish midfielder Pedro Chirivella, a veteran of seven games, is the most experienced player as well as the one whose cameo against MK Dons, when he was ineligible, could have led Liverpool to have been thrown out of the competition.
Instead, an improbable run has included a 5-5 draw with Arsenal and, now, a shadow squad led by their Under-23 manager, Neil Critchley. Fixture congestion has been created in part by an unexpected Cup run. This is an uneasy compromise. “The decision was taken above me and this is what the club have come up with,” Critchley said. “This is a unique set of circumstances and we’ve tried to find the best solution.”
Critchley began his press conference by noting: “I’m not used to this.” He made a solitary appearance in the Football League in his own playing days, so he is unaccustomed to the spotlight. And yet he underlined the incentive for those who impress. Two teenagers, midfielder Curtis Jones and right-back Neco Williams, are already in Qatar with the senior squad. Others could be late additions to Jurgen Klopp’s group for the World Club Cup. “I believe there might be a plane waiting for one or two, it might depend on how they play. I’m hoping to sneak on [it] myself.”
They may be strangers, but not to each other. “It’s not a group that’s been thrown together,” Critchley said. “It’s important we go and play like a Liverpool team. The pressure from us will be from the staff to the players to go and play like a Liverpool team.” And yet their recent form is inauspicious. They lost 4-0 to their Tottenham counterparts earlier this month.
But some featured against Arsenal, when Jones held his nerve to score the winning penalty in the shootout after the Irish goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher had saved Dani Ceballos’ spot kick. “It was an unbelievable evening,” added Critchley. “Part of my job is to try and put the players in situations where they learn from being outside their comfort zone.” He has a champion in Klopp. “We’re very fortunate our manager believes in young players,” he said.
Apart from back-up goalkeeper Adrian, Liverpool’s summer recruitment consisted of the up and coming. The winger Harvey Elliott became the youngest ever Premier League player at Fulham last season; the Dutch defender Sepp van den Berg had a tough time against Arsenal but is highly rated and will return to the competition. Others have been on Liverpool’s books for more than a decade.
“I’ll be very proud to lead the team out,” added Critchley. “But the pride I’ll have is to see how far the players have come.”