There have been first-team debuts, Merseyside derby winners and a dramatic late victory against Manchester United.

On and off the field, the 2019-20 Academy season – which has been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – included a series of special moments for Liverpool’s youngsters.

For Barry Lewtas and his U18s squad, it has been another promising campaign, and Liverpoolfc.com recently caught up with the coach via video link to reflect on their progress.

Read on for his verdict on the many highlights – such as a 6-1 win over Everton in the mini-derby and the 7-0 victory against Napoli in the UEFA Youth League – and why Paul Glatzel and Abdi Sharif will return stronger than ever from their injuries.

Barry, obviously the decision was taken to finish the 2019-20 Academy season, so I guess the job for the likes of Alex Inglethorpe, yourself and all the coaches is to now keep the players’ spirits up…

Of course. At the moment we are keeping in touch with the boys and they are carrying on with their programmes. Fair play to them, they’ve been really committed over what has been a real uncertain time for everybody. So for us at the moment, we are trying to keep a close eye on them, make sure they are keeping well and obviously spending time with their own families. We sit it out, we ride it out and when it’s safe for everyone I’m sure we will all return and we will play football again. So it’s just a case of trying to make sure everybody keeps well and stays safe at the moment.

Can you believe we recently remembered one year on from when you won the FA Youth Cup?

I had a phone conversation with Paul Glatzel a few days ago and it just kind of came up that it was a year ago and how fast that year has gone and how quickly time goes on. It was great catching up with Paul. We had a little chat about it and that was good.

Before the season was stopped, it was turning into a really fruitful one for the Academy, and with the U18s we had some special moments…

Yes we did. It was a real enjoyable season. We had some fantastic mornings, both home and away, and we played some really good football. The lads were a real pleasure to work with every day and they work so hard. I know the season got cut short but I look back fondly at what we did in terms of what we achieved as a group.

As always with the U18s, it’s a constant conveyor belt with players moving up to the U23s and new ones coming in. We had a new strike force in Layton Stewart and Fidel O’Rourke, who quickly formed a nice partnership together…

Definitely – and that’s the nature of the job, I’ve said that before. Sometimes you only have half a season with some players, so that’s fine and that’s the job and there’s no surprise or shock to me on that one. In terms of the front two this year, we had two centre-forwards who score goals – there’s no question about that. The real difficulty this season was probably getting everybody fit at the same time and firing, and unfortunately we had a few boys this year who missed periods of time injured. That always gives other players a chance as well. So that’s football and that’s the way it works, but that’s the job. You have one team for one season or one team for just a few months and then when they move on you start work again.

Let’s look back on some of the highlights of the season. First of all, you started it with a 7-1 away win at Blackburn Rovers when Stewart, Tom Hill and James Balagizi each netted doubles on their U18s debut…

The first game of any new season you are always, I wouldn’t say apprehensive, but you wonder how the season is going to go, how you are going to start, how has pre-season gone, ‘Are the boys fit enough? Have we played enough games?’ and you hope we have prepared enough and you hope the things you’ve tried to get across are there. That one at Blackburn, we scored goals and we played some fantastic football. It was a cracking way to start the season. For two years on the run as well because I had the same feelings up at Sunderland the previous year and we won 6-1! Our last two opening days of the season have gone quite well so far.

We had some exciting and dramatic games in Kirkby, didn’t we? The 3-2 win over Stoke City with Stewart’s wonderful late winner from Jake Cain’s vision and pass…

Probably over the last two seasons Stoke City has always been a really difficult game – the boys know that, I know that. They play good football but at the same time they make things difficult for you to play, and fair play to them. I think we have played them five times so far in my two years with the U18s and we haven’t had an easy morning once. That morning was no different. We started well and they edged their way back in but I thought we finished the game really strongly. I know we have scored a lot of last-minute goals but that was a real high-quality goal. It was a fantastic pass from Jake and a fantastic run and finish from Layton. I’m sure if there was a highlights reel then that goal would probably get top billing.

The 4-3 win over Manchester United was thanks to another late winner. No matter what level, they are usually thrilling encounters…

That was a really good game and it was feisty as usual. I thought we kept our discipline quite well and I actually thought we had real good control of the game. It was probably one of those games I was a little bit frustrated about. I felt Manchester United are a good team with good players but we had them on the rack and we were in the lead and then we let them back in it. I thought we were a little bit soft in moments in that game but, again, we showed real good personality in the way we keep pushing and trying to attack and I thought we were deserved winners on the day. It was an end-to-end game and I think we learned a few lessons there because against a good team and good opposition, you can’t give them opportunities to get back into the game because they will take them. So that morning it was great to get a win, especially against Manchester United, but it was probably a really good learning experience as well.

I think Layton and Billy Koumetio are still discussing who claimed the winning goal in that game, too…

I’ll leave that to Layton but I wouldn’t be arguing with Billy! I think they were good as gold after it and you can see from the celebrations of the goal. They are very much a real tight-knit group and the way they celebrated it, it was as if they had scored the goal. It was about the group really, which was a real nice kind of thing to see early on in the season. They came together as a group and worked hard for each other and it was a little bit about what we are about.

The winning goal again came from a Leighton Clarkson pinpoint set-piece delivery. Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland always says Leighton’s deliveries are a nightmare for opposition goalkeepers and defenders…

Yes, definitely. Before Leighton and Jake moved up to the U23s, we probably had 18 months of good deliveries from one side and then the other. That is an attribute the pair of them both have and they are important in the modern-day game as well. It’s not something we are constantly on the training field practising but it is something that they both take great pride out of doing after training – set-piece delivery from corners and free-kicks. Obviously moving further forward in their career, having an attribute like that can be extremely valuable to their careers but also the teams that they play for, so we certainly utilise them. I know last season Rhys Williams benefited quite a few times from a few headers and, to be fair, a few boys like Billy and Remi Savage have benefited this year, too. So I’m sure they were pleased when we did get a set-piece and either Jake or Leighton were on them.

We have to mention that mini-derby at Finch Farm when you came back from 1-0 down to win 6-1. You could have scored more than six…

Definitely. I never like to say we didn’t start well because I don’t think that was the case. Everton started extremely well, they put us under pressure and managed to create one or two chances early on. Once we solved a few problems we got into our rhythm. We scored a few goals before half-time, which helped, but second half we were fantastic – the way we played, the way we pressed, the way we won the ball back, the amount of chances we created. I know it seems strange to say but it wasn’t one of those games where everything we hit went in and we had other chances as well. It was one of those mornings where it wasn’t easy and I think the start of the game showed that. I said to the boys afterwards, ‘Enjoy moments and games like that because they don’t happen often.’ Everton are a good youth team as well and they’ve done really well this season as well up until the point that it was cancelled. So to go there and perform as good as we did against a good team just showed that when we clicked and when we got it together, we were a match for anyone.

I remember Tyler Morton coming on and scoring – another young boy who has come in and is making good strides. I know you’ve given him some extra responsibility in the team since Leighton and Jake moved up to the U23s…

Tyler had a couple of injuries last year so his season started a little bit later than everyone else. When I say he had to be eased in, I mean we had to take care of him and do things right by him. At the time the midfield was functioning well, so Tyler was having to work hard in training, not just to get himself back fit, but also to try to get into the team. But once he did, he started to flourish really. Obviously once Leighton and Jake did move up, more responsibility naturally fell to Tyler around how we created and how we wanted to play the game in possession. So I suppose for all the boys it was a shame when the season was cut short. It’s always difficult for the injured lads because they miss chunks of the season. Tyler’s season started a little bit late but I hope he can take what he did this season into the start of the next one, which I’m sure he will.

The UEFA Youth League campaign with the U19s brought us some thrilling games as well. On the 7-0 win over Napoli at the Academy, Curtis Jones was unplayable that day, scoring a hat-trick…

He was! It was a funny game because I think in the first half an hour some of the football the boys produced and the way we played, fair credit to them. We had a really strong team on display and when you looked at it before the game, we thought, ‘We’ve got a good team out so let’s see where we go.’ Fair play to them, the amount of goals and the football, you could see minute by minute the confidence was just getting bigger and bigger, and the way we were playing, the chances we were creating, it was crazy really. I remember near the end of the game we had made a few substitutions and we missed so many chances to score so many more goals as well! It could have got a little bit out of hand but that was a real showcase for some of the players that we do have at the Academy and how much progress they have made. That was a really good afternoon and I really enjoyed that one.

You must be really proud at seeing the progress of the likes of Curtis and Neco Williams, and also having the opportunity to work with Harvey Elliott in the U19s…

They’ve all done fantastically well. It’s nice to see some of the boys I knew at a younger age grow into young men. They are fantastic lads and it’s great when they come down to the Academy. That Napoli game just goes to show that when they do come back to the Academy, it’s not, ‘Oh, we are back here’. They want to play, they are keen to be involved in the games and to showcase what they can do, but obviously to play a game of football as well. So it’s always fantastic to have them back at the Academy because, first and foremost, they are good players and it’s great to catch up with them and be around them again. But it’s also great to be around them because they are good people and the more good people you can have around teams and groups, that is infectious. We have Curtis, Neco, and Harvey has come in and settled really well to the club. That is a really good motivating factor for the other boys around the group as well. So seeing those boys coming back and performing the way they perform is a really important part of what we are doing. It’s great to see.

We have to talk about that night at Anfield against Shrewsbury Town. To get the win in front of a massive crowd, we saw you at the end hugging with Alex Inglethorpe and Neil Critchley, which was great to see. That team was a mix of U23s and U18s players…

It was great. It was a great occasion and I have to thank Critch for letting me be around it and getting a taste for what it’s all about. It was probably an easy bit for me because I got to be around it and watch the game. But I was nervous for the boys but it was Critch who had to carry the can and deal with the pressure – and he did it unbelievably well with the way the team was set up. The Aston Villa game was a little bit different because, with all due respect to Shrewsbury, we believe we’ve got a good team and we believed we could compete. I know that seems strange to say it but we were the home team and it was our fans cheering us on. I think we were all confident that the boys could flourish and perform. It was really good seeing some of the football that they played and also to see the moments in the game when it was tough. They stuck in there, they defended and they played for each other. Then obviously they got the result, which was fantastic for them. To see them then walk around the pitch and the fans staying behind at the end to cheer them, they are memories they will keep for life. With the situation we are in at the moment, I hope that’s a situation that only motivates them to kind of want more and really pushes them on. That was a great experience for them and obviously for us as an Academy a fantastic evening.

It’s been a tough year for two of your FA Youth Cup heroes in Paul Glatzel and Abdi Sharif, who missed the season through serious injuries. But they will be back next season and are two great lads who will be back strong…

It was a great year for the boys winning the FA Youth Cup and the league campaign we had. From the outside that looks great but I think what goes on behind the scenes – how hard they worked and the relationships that we had as a team – to see them kick on next season and especially in pre-season and a number of them with the first team was a real highlight. Then obviously to see two of the lads, who have worked ever so hard, pick up injuries in pre-season and have basically the season written off was really tough. It was real tough start to the season for them and the staff because of how much care we have for the boys. That was sad but they’ve worked ever so hard and the physical staff have really pushed them on and I’m sure they will be back ready to go next season. They will be itching to get back playing, Paul will be itching to score goals and Abdi getting up and down the pitch and weighing in with a few goals himself. He finished that U18 year extremely strong, so it just kind of shows that you can have real highs and be in a really good place. The injury setbacks are part of the game but credit to them, they’ve shown a real maturity around their rehabilitation and I’ve got every confidence that they will both come back even stronger next season. Fingers crossed.

Layton Stewart of Liverpool FC

Meet the Academy: Layton Stewart