Sunday 18 August 2019

The local lad made good: why Champions League success would mean more to Alexander-Arnold

Flashback: Trent Alexander-Arnold alongside Jamie Carragher as a mascot before the Premier League game against Leeds in 2009
Flashback: Trent Alexander-Arnold alongside Jamie Carragher as a mascot before the Premier League game against Leeds in 2009

Chris Bascombe

No sporting romance is as sentimental as that of the home-grown footballer inspiring his boyhood heroes to glory. Whether it is the Lisbon Lions born within 10 miles of Celtic Park, 19-year-old Brian Kidd scoring against Benfica for his (once) beloved Manchester United, Garry Birtles, the former carpet fitter from Long Eaton who assisted Brian Clough's European conquests, or dashing Brummie Gary Shaw inspiring Aston Villa in 1982, the chant about "one of our own" carries greater resonance.

Tottenham Hotspur fans cherish the idea of the two Harrys - Kane and Winks - living their dream in Madrid, but Liverpool's list of those making the leap from terrace to podium is extensive; Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case and David Johnson led Bob Paisley's continental conquests before Sammy Lee emerged through the youth ranks to win the European Cup in 1981.

Kirkby-born Phil Thompson celebrated captaining that 1981 win over Real Madrid by allowing pals to take a sip from the European Cup in his local pub; Carragher's Pub in the heart of New York City is testimony to the legacy of a certain 'Daily Telegraph' columnist since Istanbul; while Huyton's finest, Steven Gerrard, is probably second only to Paul McCartney as the most-recognised living Scouser since the stirring comeback against AC Milan in 2005.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, who as a boy peeked over Melwood's walls while awaiting Gerrard's signature, makes his second attempt to join this elite club tonight. The man he idolised is best placed to advise what could be in store.

"Trent will think his life changed the moment he broke into the Liverpool side, becoming a recognised face to fans and around the city. It would be something else if he wins the Champions League," Gerrard says.

"That is a life-changer on a worldwide scale. When you get that trophy - when you lift that 'big ears' above your head - you get recognised wherever you go.

"That is something he would only come to realise if Liverpool win. After winning the European Cup, it feels like everyone knows your face. The images get plastered all over the world."

There is another incentive for Alexander-Arnold, 20, in Madrid. He can break a 42-year-old record to become his club's youngest home-grown winner.

David Fairclough was three months older when an unused substitute as Liverpool lifted their first European Cup in 1977, his contribution immortalised with the quarter-final winner against Saint-Etienne. A year later, the striker from Cantril Farm led the line at Wembley as Bob Paisley's side defended their title.

"Everything feels magnified when you are a home-grown player," Fairclough says. "To have the love and adulation of those in your own city makes it different when you are successful. You feel the goodwill, although in some ways it can also be tougher…"

Away from the euphoria, this flip side is equally captivating, those born a bus ride from their Melwood HQ facing distinctive challenges.

"When I joined at 13, I never really thought of the difference between being a local player and one who had been brought in from elsewhere," Fairclough says. "I was naive. You never think so far ahead. Getting in the first team was just the dream.

"It was only when I made it into the first team I felt it was a lot easier for the manager to leave out a young, local-born player than someone who had been signed for decent money.

"I did have battles against bigger personalities, those who would speak out if they were not in the side. It was easy to leave me out because I would not rock the boat.

"Clubs know your passion is there - you love the club, you want to play for the club, you don't want to move away, you have no thoughts of playing for anyone else and you are not going to be motivated to make a choice based on money. Because of that you don't get, or even think about, the signing on fees others get for joining the club and things like that."

Dave Usher, editor of The Liverpool Way website, believes while fans revel in the triumph of academy stars, there is also a history of them being judged more critically than expensive signings.

"Being local doesn't always mean preferential treatment," Usher says. "The opposite is often true as academy kids have much more to prove to the fans than an established player who a club spent millions of pounds on. If you come from the youth set-up then you are unproven at the top level, so you'll have people doubting you.

"When an established player has a bad game, he's just had a bad game. When a local kid has a bad game, for some fans it's because the step-up is just too much. For a local youngster to make the grade he not only needs ability and a strong mentality, he needs a supportive manager. Trent has that and he's flourished because of it."

When the rewards come, however, the symbolism of the local hero is more powerful.

"I don't think fans really care where our players come from as long as they're good enough and give their all, but there's definitely something special about one of our own coming through," Usher says.

"A kid who has been a fan his entire life, who was a ball boy at Anfield and has been at the academy since he was six is now a mainstay of the first team and one of the best players in the world in his position. And he's only 20 years old. He's just a young Kopite living the dream."

No one is more desperate than Gerrard for Alexander-Arnold to become the latest Liverpool-born European winner.

There was an element of chance in how the club found Alexander-Arnold - he shone when a scheme inviting primary schoolchildren in the city to train at the club reaped dividends - but the academy coaches wasted no time polishing their gem.

"I knew Trent had everything when I first saw him at the academy," Gerrard says. "You only had to see him for 15 minutes. He had that competitive edge to go with it - not afraid to go through a few with his tackles. I always look to see if people can compete and look after themselves."

So, would victory mean more to him than any of his team-mates?

"I think the reason it means more as a Liverpool lad winning the European Cup is because you are going to spend the rest of your life in Liverpool," says Gerrard. "That applied to me and I think the same applies to Trent.

"I have moved around, but my family is still in the city and Liverpool will always be part of me.

"There is a pride in not only what you have achieved as a player and for the history of your club, but also what you have achieved for your own city. That is the difference."

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