'Liverpool tapping-up row has made me sad and stressed,' says schoolboy at centre of scandal
The 13-year-old victim of the Liverpool tapping-up scandal is gazing out into the back garden of his home.
His eyes are fixed on the small patch of grass on which he learnt to play, fighting over the ball with his two older brothers and kicking it so hard it would splinter the wooden fence, or sail over it into the next door neighbours’.
Football was just for fun back then and he was good at it, good enough to play on the wing for Stoke City’s under-nines aged just seven and join their academy a year later.
Then Liverpool came calling – and everything went awry.
Welcome to a cautionary tale of modern-day football, the story of the boy in limbo, the child banned from playing through no fault of his own.
This is the first time he has spoken about his plight, about how Liverpool induced him and his family into defecting from Stoke, and how the collapse of that move left him with a £49,000 ransom on his head and his parents in thousands of pounds of debt in private school fees.
Despite his tender years, he says he understands “everything” about the events which saw Liverpool last month become the first Premier League club to be hit with a transfer ban on schoolboy players.
Inevitably, the case has taken its toll on such a young mind, with the boy – breaking his silence on the condition of anonymity – saying it has made him feel “sad” and “stressed”.
So desperate is he to play again and continue to pursue his dream of turning professional, he is ready to “beg” Stoke to waive the £49,000 compensation Liverpool or any other side would have to pay to sign him – something no one else appears willing to cough up.
“It’s nothing to Stoke, is it – £49,000 – to a multi-million-pound company?” the boy says of a club who turned over £100 million last season in a league that generated billions.
The compensation figure is a small fortune, however, to a family who face having to pay even more than that to keep their son in the private school at the centre of this scandal. The centre because it was Liverpool’s promise to cover the boy’s fees which saw their near two-year campaign to lure him to Anfield exposed.
That included funding an all-expenses-paid trip for him and his family to watch a match, alleged offers of similar trips to tournaments in Paris and Denmark, £50 cash in hand for his father every time he went for training at their academy and even money to help replace a faulty car exhaust.
The promise to take over responsibility for the school fees from Stoke was the clincher, only for the Premier League in October to block Liverpool from doing so, having changed its rules on such payments four months earlier.
With the boy having already begun the first term of the new school year, his family were suddenly facing a bill for £4,250 they had no means of paying.
Now they are suing Liverpool for that and the remaining £50,000 it will cost for the boy to complete his private education. The prospect of such drastic action was the furthest thing from this young man’s mind when one of the world’s biggest and richest clubs first showed an interest in him.
“I was really excited,” he says, sitting on a sofa overlooking the back garden of his family’s modest, semi-detached home.
He still has some of the kit the family say Liverpool gave him, at the bottom of a cupboard in his bedroom, in which a signed Stoke match ball has pride of place.
He also has fond memories of sharing a hospitality box with Raheem Sterling, a player whose move to Anfield he dreamed of emulating.
His enthusiasm for the move waned after he felt bullied by his prospective team-mates on tour with the club in Denmark.
But having been left feeling as though bridges had been burnt at Stoke, he was ready to sign for Liverpool at the start of September. That was days before he began a new term at his private school, which he had been attending since the age of nine, initially on a two-year scholarship secured by his father and then at the expense of Stoke.
The boy has just returned home from that school and is still wearing his uniform, something else which Liverpool allegedly promised to pay for.
Sitting in on his interview is his 65-year-old father, who has also been speaking about the saga for the first time, saying: “It’s seriously had an impact on my health. The sleepless nights, the worry that I’ve had to cope with this.
“It’s had an impact on all the family. If I’m stressed, they’re all stressed.”
He reveals he was forced to take out a loan to cover the first term’s school fees and is now facing an even larger bill for the second, which he does not know how he is going to pay.
Asked why he has simply not pulled his son out of the school, he says: “I’m thinking, if I’m suing a football club for his education, he’s got to be there.”
Describing himself as “trapped”, he adds: “I can’t afford to pull him out and I can’t afford to keep him there.”
His despair is matched only by his anger, anger at Liverpool, anger at Stoke and anger at a Premier League rule change which has cracked down on the poaching of academy players but failed to protect him and his family.
“They’ve screwed me good style,” he says.
He says the family had no idea Liverpool had been breaching regulations regarding inducements until two of their representatives told him to lie to Premier League investigators – something the club deny.
He warns that, in the academy game, dice are loaded against parents who cannot afford legal representation, adding: “My advice? If you go to Stoke, take a lawyer with you; if you go to Liverpool, take two.” Liverpool declined to respond to this comment.
As for another club being willing to pay £49,000 to sign his son, he says interest has dried up since academy rules saw that fee soar from £9,000 last summer.
He adds: “You know what’s wrong with football? There should not be money on any kids until after 16. You can’t have an agent until you’re 16 and by the time you want one, you’re well and truly stitched up. And it’s wrong.”
He also reveals the main reason the family have chosen to remain anonymous is “fear” of reprisals from supporters, saying: “There are fanatical people. They come and smash your windows to bits.”
Claiming he was raised in one of the country’s poorest areas, he insists his only concern is getting his children the best possible education and that he never expected his son to become a footballer.
“I’m doing what’s best for my kid,” he proclaims. That kid is listening intently to much of what his father says, the latter having insisted he has “no secrets” from his son.
Asked if he is proud of his dad for fighting his corner, the boy in limbo says: “Pretty proud.”