Steven Gerrard is hoping his U18s seize their opportunity at Anfield and create memories they can cherish forever when Arsenal come to town in the FA Youth Cup fourth round on Saturday.
No members of Gerrard’s squad have previously had the opportunity to play in front of the Kop, and the manager anticipates a special experience for them come the 3pm kick-off.
Indeed, this is the first time since April 2013 the youth team have had a chance to run out at Anfield, though on that occasion the Reds lost to Chelsea in the first leg of their FA Youth Cup semi-final.
Ahead of the game, Gerrard has warned his players against the dangers of playing the occasion and not the fixture, and explained that he will urge his youngsters to go out and show their undoubted potential on the biggest stage of their fledgling careers.
Read our exclusive chat with the Liverpool U18s boss ahead of the Anfield encounter below...
Steven, the stage is set for your U18s; 3pm Saturday, FA Youth Cup fourth round versus Arsenal – it doesn’t get much better than that?
These players will never get a better stage than on Saturday, playing at Anfield in front of the new stand. Hopefully we will get a decent turnout to watch the lads, the surface is incredible. It’s what dreams are made of. When you grow up you want to play in big stadiums and there’s none better than Anfield. It’s such an iconic stadium. The lads should be licking their lips at this opportunity.
What was the reaction when you and Tom Culshaw told the squad they would be playing at Anfield?
First and foremost we had to ask for permission. To be fair to the club and the people who make these decisions they were very sharp; they were quick and they gave us this opportunity. As staff we couldn’t wait to tell the lads, but it has its pros and its cons. The pro is what a fantastic experience this is; some of these players might never get the opportunity to grace the famous turf and play in such an iconic stadium again. The downside is the Arsenal players are going to be up for it as well. We will be reminding the players that, yes, this is a fantastic opportunity for you but play the game and don’t play the surroundings. Don’t be thinking about the stadium or the dressing room - focus on your job and the process to beat Arsenal.
It's quite unusual this Saturday because there will be 11 Anfield debuts plus the possibility of more from the bench. That’s something special, isn’t it?
I think you are right because none of them have had this opportunity before and that’s another reason why we wanted them to have this Anfield experience. To grow as a player and grow as an individual you’ve got to experience different stages to play a football match in. Yes, to play at Tranmere or the Academy is important, but to take that up a notch at Anfield should help these players to develop.
On a personal level, how much are you looking forward to managing a Liverpool team at Anfield?
It’s magical and it’s great, but as I’ve said before this is not about me wanting to manage at Anfield. This is more for the players. This is more to make them grow, help them learn and give them an opportunity to sample what it’s like to play in a magic stadium. With all due respect I know Anfield like the back of my hand, more as a player of course, and it will be nice to be in the dugout as a manager... but I wish I was 17 again walking out as a player in this game rather than being a manager!
In the third round your team showed a great attitude to beat Hartlepool United 5-1. We saw with Manchester City losing to Plymouth Argyle in the competition that shock results can happen, so how pleased were you with the lads?
That’s what the FA Cup is all about at first-team level and it’s no different at this level. If you turn up with the wrong attitude and the wrong mentality, show complacency and disrespect an opponent, that’s when the banana skins happen. I think there have been three or four big sides who have gone out of this competition already and we want to try and put a decent run in. Arsenal is a tough game, it’s a 50-50 game but hopefully we will be the better team on the day and will progress. We’ve told the players that this is the biggest game of the season and we are not going to try and play it down or try and calm them down. We need it to be as big as possible to give them that experience of playing in these fixtures again.
What about the challenge of Arsenal then? At first-team level we’ve seen some enthralling encounters with them at Anfield over the years, many of them you played in…
It’s special. It’s a big fixture and it’s a big fixture on paper. There have been some tremendous games at first-team level and that filters down through all the age groups. We’ve been watching a bit of Arsenal’s games and if they keep playing the same way they have been playing then it will be a 4-2-3-1 system with a No.10 who plays off a big No.9. They have good wingers who are strong with either foot, so that’s what we will be working on this week and how we can stop that. We will also have to make the players aware that they could also do something different, so we need to do as much preparation as we can before kick-off. It’s mine and my staff’s job to make sure that every single player - both individually and collectively - is prepared for this big game.
I know you are looking for a response from the first defeat of the season last week at Tottenham. How have the lads responded in training?
The signs have been good. We have got individuals who have shown a reaction so far, but I don’t want Monday to Friday players. I’ve told the players that if you run around and you commit in and out of possession from a Monday to Friday and then don’t turn up on the Saturday, you might as well not do it all week because you get no rewards. The main stage of the job is to do it on a weekend. So, yes, I’ve been really pleased with the attitude and the reaction since the defeat. We’ve told them good teams and good players don’t get beat twice on the run so we demand a reaction, but the signs have been good.
It’s just the one defeat for this U18s group this season – to be fair, that’s pretty good going isn’t it?
It is good but the disappointing thing for me wasn’t the defeat at Tottenham because you know you are not going to go all season winning every game. I know that’s unrealistic and that would be unfair from me, but it’s the manner of how you get a defeat that leaves a bad taste. I felt like some of my players quit on me [at Tottenham]. The big leaders in the team went missing for the first time, so it was bit of a shock for me and the staff because we have had such a good season so far. But, good teams have a day off and we had a day off. We expect them to bounce back and hopefully put in the right performance against Arsenal.
There is no better way to bounce back than playing in front of the Kop…
Yes, it will be good. We’ve said to the players, 'look, you are going to get an experience, so do you want one that lives with you forever in terms of being a positive and a win so you can tell all your friends and your family?' No matter what happens in your career, if you can tell your friends and your family and people you’ve known all of your life that you have won at Anfield, what a fantastic thing to be able to say. It also has the reverse effect. If your Anfield opportunity against Arsenal doesn’t go well and you don’t turn up or don’t play well, it might live with you as well. It’s a big game for them and we don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on them, but at the same time you can’t play a fixture like this down.
If you would like to go to Anfield on Saturday and support Gerrard's side, the Kop will be open and tickets will be priced at just £3 for adults and £1 for juniors, young adults and over 65s.
Season ticket holders and Members can gain admission free of charge but need to secure their ticket in advance online. Click here to buy your tickets.