It took mere seconds for Mohamed Salah to jump through the wall.
On the other side from the Liverpool superstar were a series of unsuspecting local schoolchildren, invited to Anfield by the club’s Red Neighbours programme under the illusion of participating in a commentary competition for the chance to meet the man himself at a later date.
Little did they know, they were all going to see the Egyptian King very soon – much to their shock when he burst through an adjacent paper screen bearing his image during their spell on the microphone.
The resulting video and the unforgettable reactions that featured within it, created in association with Joie Baby, was shared globally back in March and received an overwhelming response.
At the time of writing it has been watched more than 50million times across the club’s official platforms.
And, earlier this month, the prank was honoured at the Northwest Football Awards in the category of Best Club Marketing, Sponsorship or Engagement Campaign.
Behind those six minutes of footage, however, were months of work.
“If I or someone in my team sees a brilliant piece of content anywhere,” explains Mark Volante, the club’s head of digital video, “one of the first things I think is: ‘Can we do that with footballers?’ Would it be right for us? How can we put a spin on it that will resonate with players and fans?’”
The source of inspiration in this case was a WWE clip featuring John Cena surprising fans in much the same manner as Salah would master on that memorable afternoon in L4.
With the seed of an idea planted, a collaborative process kicked into gear within LFC.
“It was tied in with the Red Neighbours programme, so one of the first things I did when I had that idea was run upstairs to Forbes [Duff] and Christine [Mounsey] and say: ‘If I can get Mo Salah for an hour and convince him to jump through a wall, can you help me find 20 kids we can surprise?’ They are always looking to make memorable experiences for local kids, so it works well together,” says Mark.
“Sometimes you get lucky – Salah was having an incredible season, one of the best footballers on the planet. So that was always going to work.”
As internal planning for the event got under way at the club’s Chapel Street offices, Mark, his team and the wider digital media department began to consider the logistics and finer details.
The concept was explained to the player, the overall objective of the project defined, a date for filming agreed in between the first team’s demanding schedule, and the youngsters set to unwittingly star alongside Salah sourced.
“It’s so important to get the players’ personalities across,” notes Mark, who has been involved in video production at LFCTV since the summer of 2007.
“Finding ways for them to act natural on camera is a big challenge. I work in a really talented team within a really talented department, and we’re lucky we get access to our players and they’re willing to take part in stuff.
“A lot of these ideas, we want to do something nice and make someone’s day, whether it’s kids or like with Pure LFC – a group of fans we identified as deserving something.”
LFC receive recognition for Salah prank at Northwest Football Awards
Turning that vision into a reality with the help of Liverpool’s No.11 and his soon-to-be new friends was clearly a huge stage of the process – but by no means the last.
The raw footage was tightly edited and re-edited, supporting graphics were custom-made, subtitles and translations prepared, and plans for its launch across all of the club’s official platforms carefully decided.
What was the best day to publish? At what time? Which headline would grab attention?
All with one goal in mind: to reach and entertain as many people as possible.
“I want Liverpool to be the best at everything. I want Liverpool to be the best team with the best players and best manager; I want what we do with our videos to be the best,” says Mark.
“Lots of other clubs do lots of other great stuff too.
“And I’m not ashamed to admit we take inspiration from everywhere, not necessarily football.
“But our objective with everything we do is to create video content that we believe will resonate with Liverpool fans.”
And it’s the opinion of those supporters that matters most when judging success: “I take my feedback from the comments on the videos – that’s always the biggest indicator for me.
“The growth of our platforms and channels tells me we’re doing something right with this kind of content; when fans share it and it’s a badge of honour, saying: ‘I’m proud to be a Liverpool fan, this is brilliant.’ That’s generally the feedback I pay attention to.”
Liverpool’s exhilarating journey to the Champions League final last season marked a fork in the road for supporters’ interaction with the content being produced to celebrate it.
As Jürgen Klopp’s players reached new heights on the pitch during special nights against Manchester City and AS Roma, the fans painted the rest of the picture with their colour, noise and dedication.
And putting them at the heart became crucial.
“It’s really important to find ways to show off our unique supporters,” says Mark. “That wasn’t too hard with last year’s Champions League run.
“Every other rights holder would be pointing their camera at the pitch, but we made the call to film our supporters. It was a risk, it sounds odd to be pointing your camera away from the game.
“But we captured some really iconic footage – and we feel it was the right decision.”
The scale of LFC’s digital video output is significant.
Its on-demand subscription service, LFCTV GO, is an all-encompassing offering including highlights of every Reds side, full match replays, live Academy football, archive content, behind-the-scenes access at Melwood and Anfield, and much more.
With competition on the pitch mirrored by clubs’ desire to stand out on social media, meanwhile, a constant evolution of ideas and strategies is often led by video – on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and beyond.
How that looks is adapted as necessary per platform, but Liverpool’s approach is unified by the ambition of taking supporters closer to their team.
“There’s so much brilliant, accessible video content across digital these days, especially in football – from the big rights holders to the fan-generated stuff,” says Mark.
“So a couple of years ago we made some big changes to our approach to digital video, particularly across social media and YouTube.
“We took a step back to identify what we could do that nobody else could. And it was pretty obvious really. We had the access. We could bring fans closer to the players than anyone else. And that’s what we try to do: give fans some insight into the players’ lives, their personalities and friendships in the dressing room.
“There is the on-pitch stuff, which all clubs do and we carve that up in many different ways on all the different platforms.
“But we’ve also distinguished between on the pitch and off the pitch. With the latter we have identified three areas where we can make content that nobody else can.
“That’s behind-the-scenes content through Inside Anfield, player signing vlogs, Inside Training. Then we look at emotive storytelling. And personality-driven content, which is access to first-team players and making content that will make supporters see a side to them that maybe they won’t have seen before.
“When you watch something like Bezzies, the thing that is evident is the players having big smiles on their faces – if you’re a Liverpool fan that’s quite infectious and you’re naturally going to have a smile on your face too.
“What helps us be successful is because that’s what we’re trying to get from the players.”
That success can be measured by the Reds’ position as the club with the highest number of subscribers on YouTube in the Premier League.
And, so far this season the official LFC page has led the way for video views in the division with its 50million total double that of the nearest rivals.
What’s next, then?
“We’ve got an idea that we think could be as good as the Salah one – but we’re going to have to keep a lid on that until we make it happen!” Mark adds.
“We’ll be looking to make more player personality-led content because football is entertainment at the end of the day and what we do is entertainment. The more we can do of that, the better for us, because fans want more of it.”