They say you should never meet your heroes. But for Liam Coyle, that age-old mantra couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I never thought of it like that, his first captain,” Coyle says with a euphoric grin, recalling the moment he first collaborated with his boyhood idol Steven Gerrard. “That’s a nice thing to hear.”
Coyle, now 22, was just 17 when the Anfield legend started his coaching journey in the precincts of Kirkby, at Liverpool ‘s academy base in the district of Knowsley. Gerrard joined Neil Critchley’s ranks in February 2017 and primarily took a freewheeling position until the end of the campaign, taking in training sessions and matches, all while readying for his first position in the cut-throat industry of football management.
After initially taking a wide-ranging role at the Academy, predominantly offering advice to those looking to make their first inroads in the professional game, it was decided that – after discussions with academy director Alex Inglethorpe – the former Liverpool captain would succeed Critchley and become the club’s new under-18s manager. Re-entering the business he had spent 18 years in before retiring at LA Galaxy in November of the previous year.
Coyle, a combative midfield from the West Derby area, was handed the privilege of being named Gerrard’s first-ever captain. But despite the accolade, the upcoming 2017/18 season – which commenced with mass amounts of promise – was very quickly in danger of derailing Coyle’s hopes of emulating his hero and forging a long-lasting, celebrated career at Anfield.
Devastatingly, it would be an innocuous back injury sustained during a UEFA Youth League defeat at Spartak Moscow in September 2017 that would halt the now 22-year-old’s progression, a later diagnosis of a stress fracture in his lower back would keep him sidelined for eight months and result in Coyle missing practically all of Gerrard’s one-and-only season at the helm.
Liam Coyle in discussion with Liverpool legend and former coach Steven Gerrard
“It was in that Spartak Moscow game and about ten minutes in, I remember the ball went over my head and I jumped for a header and flicked it on,” Coyle tells the ECHO in an exclusive interview. “As I landed, I thought, ‘That wasn’t right, that’s really sore’. I knew a lot of the lads at that time were having back injuries but I played the full 90 minutes because I was having a bad game I didn’t want to put my hand up and blame my back as an excuse. I just got on with it and finished the game.
“After the match I was going to board the plane and picked my bags up, I was in agony. It turned out to be a stress fracture and I missed eight months. I only played August and September, two months of the season.”
Coyle’s suffering was aggravated by the fact he was then made to watch his team-mates embark on an eye-catching journey in the Youth League from afar – while working tirelessly to adhere to his rehabilitation schedule at the Kirkby gymnasium. Gerrard’s side advanced to the quarter-final stages of Europe’s premier academy competition, only to be defeated by Manchester City on penalties. Such is the accomplishment that even four years on it remains the young Reds’ joint-best run.
Having spent his childhood afternoons prowling the perimeter of Liverpool’s old Melwood training base – located in West Derby – desperate to catch a glimpse of players like Jamie Carragher, Fernando Torres and Gerrard, Coyle’s twelve-year journey through the club’s youth ranks is a concoction of devotion, self-doubt and heartbreak sprinkled with a dash of footballing royalty.
Joining Liverpool’s Development Centre at the age of nine – after excelling for Rail Vikings, a Sunday League football side his dad founded – Coyle impressed after a six-month stint and was subsequently invited for a two-week trial at the Academy. At the under-10s group, the midfielder would share a changing room with Ben Woodburn – the club’s youngest-ever scorer – and current Football League players Anthony Glennon and Tom Scully.
By his own admission, he was never the best player in his surrounding age groups as the likes of Woodburn, Curtis Jones, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Rhian Brewster often pinched the headlines for their attacking superiority, but the midfielder’s passage through the ranks would be swift as he was quickly recognised as a dependable and talented member of the young Reds’ squad.
“When I got into the Academy my successful trial – aged 10, 11 and 12 – I started to progress in the group,” adds Coyle. “Under- 10s, I was on the bench more than others but I’d still play. Under-11s, I’d play a bit more and by under-12s I had established myself as a bit more of a starting player.
“By the time under-14s came around, I ended up being captain for the first time. So it was a nice progression through. Under-15s, I was playing in the under-16s with Pep Lijnders.”
Lijnders, now Jurgen Klopp’s assistant manager at Anfield, made the move to Merseyside in the summer of 2014 after enjoying tremendous success first with PSV Eindhoven in his native Holland and later during a seven-year stint with FC Porto’s youth sides.
Despite only spending one season with the club’s under-16s side before being rewarded with a promotion as part of Brendan Rodgers’ first-team coaching overhaul in the summer of 2015, Coyle and his team-mates were blown away by the sophistication of Lijnders’ tactics and his will to win.
Liam Coyle battles with Manchester City’s Phil Foden during an FA Youth Cup tie
“It was all a bit mad,” says Coyle, reflecting on Lijnders’ arrival in the summer of 2014. “We got told in the pre-season that a coach from Porto, Pep Lijnders, was going to be the new under-16s coach and all the sessions were going to be videoed and sent to him. We were thinking, ‘He’s not going to be watching these he has better things to be doing’. But when he actually came in you could tell he actually had watched every single video because he knew everything about everyone.
“We all thought, ‘Bl***y hell, he’s actually sat there and watched all these sessions and knows our names. He’s into it.
“I remember the first pre-season trip we went on with him and he had all the names written down of everybody before we left on the coach. He was like, ‘You’re rooming with him, you’re rooming with him. You have to stay together the whole trip and I want you to bond’.
“We had never had anything like that before and it was a different way of working. He was well-drilled, all the times were on the board and everything had to be precise. I really enjoyed working with him and I think that was because we had similar values on the passion to win. Even at that age, you say it’s about development but he loved winning games.
“At one tournament he was saying to me, ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to be a centre-half’ – but I had played centre-half for him quite a bit – and he was like, ‘I need you to play centre-half for me today, you’re not going to be a centre-half when you’re older. But I trust you, we need to go and win this tournament’. It’s refreshing to hear those things, that someone has your back and has that belief in you.
“It was like he was teaching you to be a man before you were a man. So it helped us all grow as people as well as footballers. He was an unbelievable coach, fantastic. Some of the sessions he put on were unbelievable and you could just see how passionate he was about the game.”
Despite Coyle’s working relationship with the 39-year-old being cut short as he advanced to the under-18s and Lijnders moved up to Melwood full-time as Rodgers – just months after losing 6-1 to Stoke City in May 2015 – parted company with coaches Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh as part of a new-look first team set-up. However, they would be reunited at the West Derby base in the following weeks and months as the midfielder was invited to train with the first-team at Melwood with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But despite never making a first-team appearance or enduring the success of his former team-mate, Coyle has without a doubt lived the dreams of thousands of children across Merseyside as he’s shared a training pitch with the likes of Sadio Mane, and Adam Lallana, in addition to being coached by Klopp.
“Going up to Melwood was mad,” says Coyle. “I think it meant so much to me because I used to watch from over the fence and ask for their autographs when I was growing up. After training sometimes I’d be walking out the gates as a young lad and little bag, I couldn’t drive or anything, and people would be looking thinking, ‘Who is this kid’.
“You maybe don’t think about it too much at the time, but looking back they are such great experiences to tell people or look back on and think how lucky I was. So many kids dream of doing that.”
After rising through the likes with such promise and fierce determination, the midfielder’s injury troubles meant he was forever playing catch-up in one manner or another; whether it be fitness, progression or the prospect of heading on loan. And even when the toll of a rigorous academy regime stopped affecting his body, it was the psychological effects of being a young, aspiring footballer that then started to trouble Coyle during his latter teenage years.
Being an ever-present vocal figure, and captain, during his rise through the ranks meant Coyle was always expected to lead by example. But a lack of self-confidence, combined with a desperate strive for perfection, resulted in him often making himself sick in the changing rooms before matches in a heartbreaking battle with anxiety. In an attempt to regain control, Coyle began to work with the club’s Performance Psychologist Yvie Ryan, who qualified under the supervision of the renowned Psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, and has not looked back since.
Part of his work with Ryan was understanding the peaks and troughs of professional football and conditioning his mind not to dwell on the uncontrollable variables.
Coyle has excelled since joining Accrington Stanley in the summer of 2021
But the injury he picked up in Moscow was the start of what would be a nightmare two-year period for Coyle as he suffered a relapse on the same issue twice more. It would mean while the likes of Jones, Woodburn, Brewster and Alexander-Arnold were all grasping chances within the senior game – whether that be on Merseyside or elsewhere – Coyle was constantly looking to make up for the lost time in a desperate attempt to make the grade at Liverpool.
It meant that with his contract expiring in July 2020, in a season where he had only managed 14 minutes of Premier League 2 action due action to due fitness issues, the prospect of spending his future years at Anfield appeared fairly bleak, even if Coyle didn’t want to admit it himself.
But an act of kind-heartedness from Inglethrope, who had watched Coyle ripen from an adolescent pre-teen to a commanding grown-up, decided against allowing the 22-year-old to face the uncertainty of a tumultuous Football League landscape during the height of the pandemic.
“I remember going into the office and I just asked Alex what my future held at the club,” Coyle says. “It was tough to hear, I had been at the club for so many years but I was expecting it. He did tell me that he would be offering me the extra 12 months to get fit, I knew I was going to be out until the end of the season and then I would have been going into the unknown of trying to trial for clubs while unfit and in the middle of the pandemic.
“Otherwise, I would have been going into lockdown without a contract, without a club and I would have been in no man’s land and wouldn’t have to know what to do at the time really.”
But despite his eagerness to feature during the 2020/21 season in a final chance saloon to win another long-term contract at Anfield, Coyle would spend the season maintaining his fitness and trialling with football clubs before hopefully securing a contract in time for July 2021.
It would be at League One outfit Accrington Stanley where Coyle would eventually settle, under the tutelage of fellow Liverpudlian John Coleman, after a string of trial matches for their reserve side. After initially joining as an under-23s player, he has since become integral for Accy and has been at the heart of their impressive start to the current League One campaign. Coyle has started twelve of their thirteen league games this season and his side are 16th in the table.
“Because I knew I was leaving [Liverpool] at the end of the season, I was waiting for that to happen,” Coyle says. “I loved being at Liverpool and loved every minute of it but I wanted to take that next step. It was daunting being in a new place because I had always been at Liverpool but from the get-go, everyone has been brilliant with me; the staff and the players.
“It feels like home and I feel like I belong there. Coming out of the pandemic I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I’m so grateful for the opportunity they have given me, and I would like to think I’ve repaid that faith by working hard every day and trying to improve to become a first-team player.
“For some reason, I just wanted to go there. I really enjoyed it; the set-up, the staff and the players. It seemed like a really good place to go.”
On Tuesday evening, Coyle will go head-to-head with a whole host of familiar faces as Accrington Stanley host Liverpool under-23s in the final round of the Papa John’s group stage. It’s a night that will see the 22-year-old come up against the club he spent twelve years at for the first time in a competitive fixture, but Coyle will be handing out no favours as Accy look to book their place in the next round of the competition and move closer to a date under the Wembley arch come March.
Coyle is all smiles as the 45-minute interview draws to a close, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s regained confidence in himself and his ability that saw him touted as one of the academy’s brightest midfield prospects in recent years. But most importantly, he feels good and is enjoying his football once again. Topped off by celebrating his one-year anniversary at Accrington by signing a two-year extension at the club during the summer.
“I’m a lot happier in myself,” he adds as his closing remarks. “I still put pressure on myself – that’s always the way I’m going to be – and if a goal happens that’s my fault it’ll still eat me up, but now I can’t wait to get back on the pitch and make it right the week after, and I think that is where it has changed. I think not dwelling on mistakes for too long. If you’re happy and feeling confident you will end up performing better and I feel that in myself.
“I wouldn’t change any of those times. I know I put a lot of stress on myself and my family, and I didn’t want to put it on them, but I look back and think I’ve got to where I am because of those things.
To any young hopefuls hoping to one day make the grade at Anfield, Goodison Park or Old Trafford and are in the same situation Coyle found himself in for the best part of twelve years, his message is simple: “Just live in the present, work hard and give it your best.”