Hughie McAuley became Steven Gerrard's coach when the skipper was just eight years old and since then he has watched him blossom into one of Liverpool's greatest players.
Nowadays the two are close friends and have worked together to organise football camps in Gerrard's childhood home of Huyton with the Steven Gerrard Foundation.
And earlier this week McAuley sat down with Liverpoolfc.com to reflect on Stevie's landmark 600th appearance for the Reds and to reminisce about Gerrard's remarkable journey from Academy starlet to Liverpool legend.
Hughie, when did you first meet Steven Gerrard?
I first laid eyes on Steven when he was an eight-year-old and he came to the Vernon Sangster playing fields. He had been playing for his local team Whiston juniors. Stevie was recommended to us. He was a very small blonde-haired lad who, from the minute you saw him on the pitch, would make you think 'wow, here we go'.
What sort of qualities did he possess at a young age?
You could see straight away that he was a leader on the pitch. Leadership can be shown in different ways. Some players can talk on the field, some can lead by example and at a young age Steven was doing both. He was bossing people around and making things happen - he does exactly the same today. He has never changed those qualities. He's a born winner. He made an immediate impact in his attitude and wanting to let people know that he was around - and that was in 1988.
Did you ever have any doubts that Steven would make it at Liverpool?
We never thought for one minute that Steven would not make it. Our thoughts were always that, given the right circumstances and given the right chance at the football club, he would have a great career. There was a time where he went through a spate of injuries. At one point he had a growth spurt which took time to settle down. But eventually he came through those setbacks and for him it was always going to be the case that he would battle through. He wanted to play and he had a massive, overriding desire to play for Liverpool Football Club. He was a massive Red, through and through, he wanted to get there and nothing was going to stop him. He had a hunger and a real desire that you have got to have. And he had a winning mentality that you certainly have to have to play for Liverpool's first team.
There is a well-known story about when Steven was playing out in the street and he put his toe through a fork. How worried were all the staff at the Academy at this point?
We were very worried because he had only just come to the club at that point. Steve Heighway immediately went round to assess the situation. His parents were looking for a little bit of advice on the subject and he very quickly said that they were not going to do anything as drastic as removing a toe. They did the right thing by him. It was a major situation for a lad of such a young age but already we had identified his potential.
Has Stevie always been a central-midfield powerhouse?
For me, yes. He has always been a player who likes to be on the ball early and to pass the ball and run forward, side-step, get a shot on goal or set somebody up for a chance on goal. He has always been a dynamic player. In practice matches, there has been occasions in the past where we have adapted and he has fitted into a different role, where he is playing more defensively or in an attacking role to accommodate different situations. But Steven is a natural footballer and can play anywhere. From his point of view, the central-midfield position is far better because he likes to be on the ball and he likes to boss games.
What were the things that you had to push Steven on in training? Did he have weak spots?
When he was a younger player we felt he might be a little over-zealous in tackles. He wanted to go through players to win the ball and sometimes hurt players and we felt he was going to hurt himself on a number of occasions. I think he has mellowed tremendously and on that side of it, while still being competitive, he now knows the risks involved with injuries. He was so desperate to win tackles and sometimes win tackles that he shouldn't have gone in for but that's the way he is. Once he had gone through that patch and on towards the first team, he learnt very quickly how to play the game.
He didn't make the grade at Lilleshall football academy. How did that affect him?
He was very upset about that and still looks at that particular time with a little bit of disappointment. From our point of view, it meant we could work with him. Steve Heighway was particularly delighted and I know Dave Shannon was as well. I was happy to have him around us for two years rather than him being away at Lilleshall. That's how possessive we were at that time with our players, particularly players with Steven's ability. That was our gain and probably England's loss at that time.
Talk us through why Stevie was present when Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup final in 1996...
We were involved in the FA Youth Cup and Steve Heighway thought it would be a good idea that the better young players could get a lot of experience by coming out and being part of the whole situation. We went to Spain and won a tournament in St Sebastian and we took Steven and Michael Owen down. At half-time they would be on the pitch, juggling the ball and rattling the ball into the net. They were only 14 years of age at that point. We took them out for the experience of being around older players and to teach them how to handle it for when their time came to go and represent the club. They loved that. We took them to Melwood and to cup finals. I can remember walking down Wembley Way at one point for a Liverpool cup final and my wife, Maria, had hold of Steven by the hand. She was terrified in case we lost him because at that age 13 or 14 he was still quite small. We knew how keen he was to go and support Liverpool. As you can imagine, thousands are walking down Wembley Way and it could be quite frightening for youngsters. But there was Steven in the middle of it all, strolling down Wembley Way, and my missus immediately grabbed one of his hands and pulled him in and walked all the way with him to make sure that there was no way we were going to lose him. We got in the stands and went on from there. He thrives on that, he couldn't wait to get in there.
You've seen so many players come through the Academy but with Steven, did you ever dream that this guy would ever be lifting a cup for Liverpool?
When you are working with young players, you work with all the players at the Academy and you work hard to improve them all as best as you can because they all want to play football. You've always identified the ones who you think have a chance to move on to reserve-team level and hopefully with the right circumstances be given a chance in the first team. We had always identified the likes of Steven, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Fowler. For us to be able to take Steven to a cup final and sit with him and watch him look at the match and his eyes would tell you, 'that's where I want to be'. Without too much prompting from us, we know that he wants to be on that field and part of it all someday, and thankfully, it has happened for him.
How difficult was the progression from the youth team, to the reserves to the first team?
Steven didn't play that many games at reserve team level and at one point he did have some injuries. He was playing academy level and I remember him playing his first Academy U19 game against Tottenham. The likes of Peter Crouch were playing for Tottenham and from that point on; he went to Melwood a few weeks later and was part of the Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson situation. They recognised his talent and he was a talent that needed to be developed even further. It was the right time for him to leave the Academy and to go to Melwood to be part of the first team.
How proud were you and the rest of the staff when he took his first steps in the first team?
We were tremendously proud as we had been with others before Steven. He was a local lad from Huyton who was desperate to play for Liverpool and he is fulfilling his dreams and doing everything right. He's come through some difficult times as a young player and he's pushed on because he had that real hunger and desire and passion to play for and be captain of his football club. Steven doesn't take anything for granted, he still battles and plays every game like always has because he has respect for the football club and the supporters. He knows how much it means for Liverpool to be successful and he has always wanted to be part of that success.
600 games for Liverpool - that's some achievement...
He's been at the football club since he was an eight-year-old, that's 24 years in total, and he has spent a lot of time with fantastic people giving him their support and people continue to give him the right support and encouragement. For me he has been a fantastic example for young players on Merseyside and a flagship for the Academy. His achievements are there for everybody else to see. You have to say players of his calibre don't come along that often; he's a world-class player with fantastic ability. The dream he has lived is there for other kids to come and seize as well.
What about your relationship with Steven? Are you still close?
Yes. We still meet up occasionally and have a coffee and a good catch up. We did some work for his foundation which I'm really pleased about. We're good mates off the field. We talk about the team and he is still as desperate for Liverpool to do well as he always has been. I will always be there to support him. He will keep going and going and nobody will tell him that he is not going to play because he wants to play as much as possible and always will do.