Ben Woodburn’s goal and assist for Wales in their qualifying matches against Austria and Moldova has propelled him to national attention. Liverpool’s previously little-known youth player is now on the back page of every newspaper in the nation.
Woodburn is only 17 years old, and had not yet played 90 minutes in the Premier League, but he made himself a Welsh hero just four minutes into his debut for the national side. Entering the game as a 70th minute substitute while the last strains of the Welsh national anthem rang around the stadium, his 20 yard shot, barely his third touch of the ball, flew into the bottom corner of the Austrian goalkeeper’s net and raised the roof off the Millennium Stadium.
Woodburn is far from the first player to mark his international debut with a goal. This does not guarantee future success. The likes of Francis Jeffers and David Nugent scored at the first attempt, only for their career to disappear. Much more impressive than the strike, and therefore more indicative of his potential, was the performance that surrounded it. Woodburn lit up a lacklustre Welsh side and injected energy and pace into their attack.
What makes the youngster so good is hard to lay a finger upon. He isn’t fast; he isn’t flashy; he is not physically strong. He certainly cannot be compared to Wales’ star man, Gareth Bale. But while Bale has been his country’s answer to Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps with his diminutive stature, low centre of gravity and ability to drift past players, Woodburn might be able to draw at least some comparisons to Lionel Messi over the course of his career.
What was so impressive was that the 17-year-old repeated his efforts a mere three days later. Although the match was against Moldova, not one of football’s heavyweights, Wales were once again struggling to break down an opposition side, only for Woodburn to come on and make the difference. His positive run down the wing and subsequent cross was turned into the net by Hal Robson-Kanu and gave the Welsh a much-needed breakthrough.
The contribution of the young man, who chose Wales over England, cannot be underestimated. In three days he has assisted directly in revitalising Welsh qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Ireland’s defeat against Serbia means that, with only two games remaining, Woodburn and co. have a real chance to clinch the runners-up spot in their group.
This overnight renown presents an issue faced by many young players. Marcus Rashford, another precocious talent, helped salvage a win in a poor performance by England the night before Woodburn burst onto the scene. Rashford and Dele Alli before him have had the hopes of a nation thrust onto their young shoulders, and English and Welsh fans alike will be hoping that their prospects will continue to thrive even as the weight of expectation begins to grow around them.
The quality in Woodburn’s two displays will come as little surprise to Liverpool fans. Jürgen Klopp allowed the 17-year-old a few tastes of first-team action last season, for which he was repaid with a goal. Woodburn’s strike, against Leeds, made him the club’s youngest ever goal scorer, taking the record from Michael Owen. His subsequent cameos and pre-season performances made him one to watch.
Attempts by a number of clubs to tempt Liverpool into loaning out Woodburn were rejected, and it seems that Klopp sees the youngster as playing a role in the first team this year. With the club competing in four competitions this season, many youth prospects may well be presented with a chance to demonstrate their ability in the near future.
Woodburn’s performance for Wales will not have done his chances at Liverpool any harm. He has gained valuable experience from being in the national set-up and the subsequent playing time will only aid in his development. Klopp is not a manager who is scared to play youth team players, but he will be equally determined to keep the youngster out of the media spotlight to allow him to develop his skills.
If Woodburn’s performances on the pitch continue as they are, the manager will have little choice but to play him. So far, every time he has been tested, he has stepped up and proved himself. If he carries on in his development, Woodburn could well end the year as a member of the first-team and on the plane to the World Cup.
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