It was the week before Christmas. In an odd perk of the job, the school I worked at had finished a couple of days before many others, so I was presented with a rare opportunity to watch some midweek football in the daytime. As I made the short drive over to The Academy in Kirkby, I had no idea whether I would even be allowed to watch the match but it was more appealing than lying in bed drinking mulled wine.
Many of us were relaxing and winding down for the festive break. Not in football though. Arsenal had appointed Mikel Arteta as their new manager after sacking Unai Emery. In the north west, an almighty row – which had been brewing for weeks – erupted between Liverpool and the football authorities.
Having won the Champions League in the summer, the Reds found themselves heading to Qatar to compete in the Club World Cup. The problems started when they beat Arsenal in the Fourth Round of the EFL Cup to set up a Quarter Final at Aston Villa. They faced the strange prospect of having to play two matches in consecutive days, on different continents. An away tie at Villa Park on the Tuesday night and a semi-final in Doha against Mexican champions Monterray on the Wednesday.
With the FA, Football League and Liverpool refusing to agree on a new date for the EFL match, Liverpool were forced to field their U23 side against Villa. I had absolutely zero sympathy. Non-league clubs around the country are often forced to play four or five matches in a week at the end of the season. The morality of this ridiculous practice only seemed to be questioned when serial complainer Jurgen Klopp kicked off.
In normal circumstances, this Premier League International Cup match against Paris Saint-Germain would have featured a stronger Liverpool side. Whenever I have watched their Reserves or U23 sides play, there’s always one or two players who stand out. The best example of this was when I saw a young Raheem Sterling play for the Reserves at Leigh Sports Village.
This afternoon though saw a mix of even younger players than normal as the Reds’ U23 players had only played against Aston Villa three days earlier. They were on the receiving end of a 5-0 hammering, not that anybody cared by that point.
A few minutes off the East Lancashire Road, in the shadows of the huge QVC buildings is The Academy. This place will soon become the football club’s training ground. Their longstanding base at Melwood, which was transformed by Bill Shankly in the 1950’s, is to be demolished and replaced by housing.
The Academy was originally built in 1998 as a base for the club’s junior and academy sides, complete with classrooms and a lecture theatre. In 2017, Liverpool announced that due to the lack of space at Melwood, they would be spending £50 million to extend The Academy in order to move all first team training there.
While it was clearly obvious that I wouldn’t be bumping into anybody famous on this visit, security was extremely tight as I arrived in Kirkby. Through the barriers in the car park I went before I was greeted by a cold looking security bloke outside his plush office. “Hi mate. Am I allowed to watch the Paris match?” was my opening line, as he curiously stood inspecting my Bolton Wanderers air freshener which dangled from my mirror.
That was fine. I was welcome to watch, which was a relief. One catch, which I hadn’t expected was that I had to show him some form of identification to be allowed in, which was a problem as I hadn’t brought my wallet out with me. With my payment methods all on my phone, it’s rare that I leave the house with any cards on me.
The purpose of asking for ID was purely to meet safeguarding measures, which I totally understand as the place primarily is a training ground for the junior players. Surely then my work pass, complete with photograph and DBS number, which allows me to work in schools would suffice? I was eventually allowed in after some discussion and missed the first few minutes of the match.
The closest part of the facility to the main entrance is the main pitch. It has a temporary stand plonked on the embankment by the access road. The flimsy, white material which formed a roof was in grave danger of being blown off as the wind and rain drove in across Merseyside.
Surprised by the large number of people who were present, I was shown where to sit by a steward. Some there were ground hoppers, easily identifiable by their bags and waterproof clothing. Most were well groomed men, from other clubs, discreetly scribbling down notes in code form which only they could decipher. Alan Turing would have been stumped.
Part of me was tempted to head back to the car at half time and return with a notebook and pen of my own. I would then perch quite deliberately on the front row in full view, writing a shopping list or playing a game of hangman on my own.
The bloke behind me kindly flashed me his team sheet, just so I could see if I had heard of any of the players. Of course I hadn’t. I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to see how twitchy he got. His codes weren’t too hard to crack, with birth years noted next to each player.
PSG had brought a sizeable contingent with them from across the channel and they were all wrapped from head-to-toe in winter training gear. I could think of nicer things to do than travel to a wet Kirkby five days before Christmas… then again, obviously I couldn’t.
As I sipped on a watery soup that had dribbled out of a dispenser from within the foyer of the indoor pitch opposite, the sides tentatively jogged around the pristine pitch.
Liverpool were being coached by Neil Critchley, a man who made only four first team appearances in his life. Three quarters of his matches were famously made for Leigh RMI. Three months after this match, after managing Liverpool on two occasions in Klopp’s absence, he would go on to be named Blackpool manager.
There’s always the odd player that sound like they should be found in the depths of a version of Pro Evolution Soccer. Some belters were on show for PSG, none more so than their French goalkeeper, Garissone Innocent. He was soon picking the ball out of the net after a blistering start by Liverpool. Jake Cain hit the crossbar but Jack Bearne was on hand to pounce on the rebound.
Paris were equal on 38 minutes when Alexandre Fressange beat Ben Winterbottom with a cool finish. And PSG carried their momentum into the second half, edging in front 12 minutes after the restart. Richard Makutungu broke away along the right-hand side and delivered a cross that was met by Loic Mbe Soh.
Just as everybody prepared to make an early dart back to their cars, Liverpool turned the game around. Substitutes Tom Hill and Yasser Larouci scored in the 88th and 93rd minutes respectively to snatch all three points for the young Reds.
Listening to The Beatles as I headed east, I arrived home and warmed myself up. A couple of hours later, I was on the move once more as I made the short trip down the road to Leigh to catch Manchester United U19 v AC Milan U19. The referee, Lewis Smith, officiated both matches. A nice pay day for him.