Gerrard on Friday night football, Stoke and new faces

Steven Gerrard has explained the thinking behind switching Liverpool U18s' home fixtures to night games as his side get set to host Stoke City under the Kirkby floodlights.

Rather than continuing the regular routine of playing on a Saturday morning, a decision was taken to line up a number of evening kick-offs for the young Reds.

Gerrard’s team are unbeaten in the U18 Premier League so far this season and victory over Stoke would send them top of the division.

The boss told Liverpoolfc.com: “We play Stoke under the lights here at the Academy and hopefully the lads can get back to winning ways.

“The idea behind changing some of our home fixtures from a Saturday morning to a Friday night is a new experience for the players.

“People can come down and watch and the players get an experience of playing under the lights because evening games are different kind of preparation.

“We have had the chance to play at Anfield, we played a friendly against Rangers at Ibrox [in October] and then at the end of the season we can look back and say we provided all kinds of different days and experiences for them, which helps you further down the line when it’s for real.”

The U18s haven’t played competitively since January 20, when they suffered a 3-2 defeat to Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup fourth round at Anfield.

Despite the feeling of disappointment among the squad on the day, Gerrard was proud of his charges for the way they performed on their maiden outing at the stadium.

“The game could have gone either way,” he reflected. “It’s about small details which can go in your favour or against you.

“Unfortunately, it went against us but in terms of the whole experience, Jürgen [Klopp] letting us use Anfield and the buzz the kids got out of playing in front of that amount of people, that will help them so much in their futures further down the line.

“We had to swallow the defeat but in terms of what the lads gave on the day I couldn’t ask for any more and I saw in the dressing room how much that really hurt them, but the good thing about football is you get an opportunity to bounce back.

“The lads have got the winning mentality. We are unbeaten in the league up to this point and credit to them because it shows there is a winning mentality in the group.

“After a couple of defeats in the cups we want to get back to winning ways, you want that winning feeling and the lads should be up for it and really looking forward to kick-off.”

After a number of players in the U23 squad departed for loan spells during the January transfer window, a young U18s side is likely to be fielded between now and the end of the campaign.

Several talented youngsters from Barry Lewtas’ U16 group could be given a chance to impress at the next level, and Gerrard is keen to protect them from too much pressure.

He said: “I’m not sure right now which players I will have available [on Friday] and I think there’s going to be a knock-on effect from the U23s with a lot of players going out on loan.

“We have got quite a few injuries as well and I think people watching the game on Friday night might see a different line-up for us.

“When you get the chance to jump up an age group, it is always an opportunity to impress and shine.

“I’ve watched quite a few U16 games of late and I think there’s quite a few in the group who deserve that chance and the exposure.

“We have to protect them at the same time and not throw them into the deep end and make sure it’s not too soon for them, so we will be very careful how we edge them in.

“But in the situation we have we might just have to put them in and see whether they cope.”

One player set to feature tonight is 16-year-old right-back Neco Williams.

The Welsh youth international made his first start of the season during the FA Youth Cup tie at Anfield, having missed the first part of the campaign with a back injury.

The defender managed to complete 95 of the 120 minutes against the Gunners and Gerrard was delighted with his display.

“Neco was out for six months with a back problem and normally it takes you three months to get back up to speed, but I thought his performance against Arsenal was very strong,” he said.

“He is a mentally strong kid who has looked after himself very well since he has been out. I thought he was terrific.

“Neco is one that excites me and it’s great to have a proper right-back available again because we haven’t had one.”

The clash with the young Potters promises to be a very competitive affair.

Back in September, the two sides played out a 2-2 draw despite the Reds losing goalkeeper Daniel Atherton to a red card in the first half.

“We made it a tough afternoon [for ourselves],” Gerrard noted.

“We lost Dan very early on in the game, which wasn’t helpful, but the lads showed unbelievable character and determination to get something out of the game.

“We were better than Stoke and I’m sure if we had kept 11 versus 11 for the majority of the game we would have come out on top with the three points, but, having lost your goalkeeper, to get a point away from home was a positive result and I was very pleased with the lads’ reaction.

“Stoke like to go from back to front pretty quick and they have a big target man. We will prepare our lads for Stoke’s strengths and their weaknesses and then it’s over to the lads to go and deliver what we ask them to.

“If they do that then I’m confident we can get the right result, whatever personnel we have got out.”