InterviewMeet the Academy: James McConnell on PL debut, Klopp hugs and playing No.6

By Steve Hunter


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James McConnell is almost lost for words when asked to reflect on his season so far.

After being included in Jürgen Klopp’s senior squad during pre-season, the midfielder was on the bench for the Merseyside derby win over Everton at Anfield in October.

McConnell then made his Reds debut against Toulouse and followed that up with a Premier League bow against Brentford earlier this month.

“It’s been a bit crazy, hasn’t it?!” McConnell tells in the latest edition of our Meet the Academy series.

“It’s certainly not what I expected at all. I’ve had lots of opportunities and I’d like to think I’ve taken them all [the best] I could have but it has been a bit crazy, to be honest.

“I’ve had some big moments that I dreamed about since I was a kid, so it’s been amazing.

“Being on the bench against Everton in the derby was great. I had a bit of a feeling I would be the day before because I made the squad, but then you are waiting to see if you make the bench.

“I got told by one of the coaches that I would be on the bench and it was just a great feeling and I couldn’t wait for it.

“It was just an amazing experience and also to be part of a squad with a few players who hadn’t played in a derby before was just so good to be around. It was a great experience.”

Soon after that involvement on derby day, McConnell achieved his Liverpool debut when he was summoned from the bench to replace Curtis Jones in the 88th minute during the Europa League home win over Toulouse.

“I remember Chambo [Luke Chambers] started the game and I was just itching to get on,” he says.

“I was thinking, ‘If we could get a few more goals I might get on here.’ And when we went 4-1 up I was warming up and then got the call. I quickly got stripped and it was an amazing experience coming on.

“I got a couple of touches of the ball and I just loved every minute of it, it felt like the best thing ever and then we scored again when Mohamed Salah netted the fifth goal.”

The Newcastle-born midfielder made another late appearance from the bench before the international break, only this time it was a Premier League debut in the 3-0 win over Brentford.

“That was definitely the peak of my career so far,” he continues.

“When you are a kid, you dream of playing in the Premier League one day. I was hoping one day it would come and to get the call for the last few minutes was so special.

“It’s amazing playing at Anfield. My mum couldn’t get there because she was working but my dad was there with his mates and he was very proud.

“I also spoke with a few of the Academy coaches like Alex [Inglethorpe], who has been fantastic with me and I’m always really grateful for the support he and the coaches there give me. There’s loads of people at the Academy who help me.

“I was with Bridgey [Marc Bridge-Wilkinson] for three years and he and Barry [Lewtas] have been brilliant with me.”

McConnell has been training regularly with the senior players at the AXA Training Centre this season and he believes that has been a big help for him playing in a new role as a No.6.

During his days with the U18s, he was deployed as a more attack-minded midfielder and built up a nice habit of making great runs into the box and netting vital goals.

With the seniors in the summer, Klopp fielded McConnell in a deeper position in the centre of the pitch and delivered high praise for the way he adjusted.

The No.53 says: “I’m learning every single day, especially if you look at the fact that I’m playing in a slightly different position this season.

“I still back myself playing the attacking role but this season I’ve been playing in the No.6 deeper role and learning on the job so to speak.

“I’m learning off all the players, learning from players like Dominik Szoboszlai, the younger ones like Curtis and Harvey [Elliott] who have given me great support and help.

“Being around these top players, you are only going to learn and get better.

“I’d only played as a No.6 twice before, which was in the UEFA Youth League last season.

“The first time was Ajax away and I remember I didn’t know what the position meant but Barry was a big help for me, he trusted me and guided me through it.

“If you look back at that game to six months down the line, I’ve made two appearances for the first team and played as a No.6 in pre-season for the first team, so I like this role as well. It’s good to be versatile and give the manager different options.

“I feel more comfortable in the No.6 role now and it is only going to benefit me going forward.

“I feel like I’ve had to try to learn how to play my game in that position rather than just play that position. I think my strengths are being able to manipulate the ball and shift the ball and get a yard, so I’m starting to find a balance with my game now without risking it too much while still being good defensively.”

McConnell has been a recipient of the famous Klopp hug on several occasions already this season.

And he considers the chance to train regularly under the guidance of the manager to be something very special.

“The manager is brilliant and he always gives young players a chance,” he says.

“He knows I’m from Newcastle and we always have a bit of banter about that and I’ve got a good relationship with him.

“I learn from him every day and some of the coaching points he makes to me feels like gold dust and I listen and take everything he says on board.

“When I made my debut, you get that Klopp hug which you see on TV and it makes you feel amazing.”

McConnell has certainly come a long way since the last campaign, when he was a regular member of Bridge-Wilkinson’s U18s squad but a series of niggling injuries held him back.

“I often reflect on last year and I remember being a bit disappointed I wasn’t with the U21s at the time and maybe I would have been a bit further ahead if it wasn’t for the injuries,” he adds.

“I look back now at how the first six months of this season have gone and I think all those experiences last season were worth it, and taking that bit longer was worth it as well because I had to be patient. I feel fitter now, I feel ready.”

McConnell took his first steps in the academy system with Sunderland before moving south to Merseyside at the age of 15.

“There’s been a lot of highs so far and lows when I’ve been injured,” he reflects. “But if you look at moments like the Brentford game, making my Premier League debut, it just makes everything seem worth it with the work that you’ve put in.”

This term has also seen McConnell take the captain’s armband with the U21s and play a part in helping the team reach the knockout stages of the Bristol Street Motors Trophy for the first time.

He says: “I always enjoy it with the U21s and taking the armband is special.

“I feel ready and even though I might not be one of the oldest lads, I feel I can still be a leader in this team and I’ve got a great relationship with Barry.

“I feel like I can take some of the experience that I’ve had so far with the first team with me to help the other lads in the U21s.

“I think we’ve done well at U21 level so far and some of the games have been very tough because we’ve had three or four 16-year-olds in the team who have all done very well.

“It’s great to qualify for the next stage of the Bristol Street Motors Trophy and that shows we are heading in the right direction and we are looking forward to seeing who we get in the draw.”

As for his future ambitions, McConnell is still aiming high but knows hard work is key to him staying in and around Klopp’s set-up.

“The ultimate dream is to be a Premier League footballer at the top level,” he finishes.

“The manager always talks a lot to the young players about being patient and biding your time and I know at the minute I’m doing all the right things, so I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep trying to perform and see what happens, keep at it and give it everything that I have got.”



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