Cyber Stars Liverpool AXA training ground GFXLFC

'Football is cut-throat' - How Liverpool are helping former youth-team prospects become 'Cyber Stars'

A well-timed run and a perfectly-weighted through ball. A quick look up before a slick, right-foot finish inside the near post. A punch of the air and a smile that could have lit up all of Dublin.

Jack Dunn remembers the moment as if it were yesterday, and why wouldn’t he? It may not have been the most significant goal ever scored – the fourth in a sleepy, end-of-season friendly win over Shamrock Rovers at the Aviva Stadium – but to a boyhood Liverpool fan it was everything.

“I was living the dream,” Dunn tells GOAL now, more than eight years on. “I’d been at Liverpool since I was seven, and all I’d ever dreamed of was playing and scoring for the first team. When it happened, it felt like the whole world was there for me.”

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At that time, Dunn was tipped as a potential star for both club and country. A technically-gifted, left-footed forward, he shone for Liverpool at youth level, and played alongside the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Pickford, Eric Dier and Patrick Bamford with England’s U17 and U19 sides.

In 2011, he played at the U17 World Cup in Mexico, but despite showing promise in loan spells at Cheltenham, Burton Albion and Morecambe, he would never play a competitive senior game for Liverpool, and his professional career would be over at the age of 24.

These days, he works full-time as an online personal trainer while playing for Marine in the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of the English pyramid. 

“I’m enjoying it,” he says, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, he admits, football was anything but fun.

Jack Dunn Liverpool 2013Getty

Dunn’s story is a common one: the dedication and the dreams of a young man, the disappointment of rejection, the difficulty accepting your fate and then the dread of starting a new life.

Recent figures show that only 0.01 per cent of the 1.5 million players who play organised youth football in England will make it to the Premier League, meaning the onus is on clubs to provide support, pathways and aftercare for those who fall short.

Liverpool, it must be said, have become something of a standard-bearer in that respect. While much of the focus is on those who do make it at Anfield, such as Trent Alexander-Arnold or Curtis Jones, the Reds’ real success stories can be found far and wide, and not just in professional football.

Dunn, for example, is one of three former Liverpool prospects to have recently completed the first PSM ‘Cyber Stars’ Digital Academy programme, an initiative aimed specifically at helping current and ex-players into a career in the cybersecurity industry. 

“It all came from [Liverpool’s former head of education and welfare] Phil Roscoe,” he explains. 

“He started up an ‘alumni’ email, which goes out to ex players every quarter, and he and [education manager] Caitlin Hawkins, always keep in touch with us all, and are really helpful in pointing us towards different courses and opportunities. 

“It (cybersecurity and technology) is something I’ve always been interested in, so when I saw this programme on the email, I jumped at it.”

The ‘Cyber Stars’ course, Dunn admits, was challenging, consisting of five months’ intense online training. Not easy when juggling a full-time job, a semi-professional football career and, most importantly, a young family too.

Complete it he did, though. He, together with fellow ex-Reds Josh Sumner and Josh Dobie, attended a graduation ceremony at the AXA Training Centre in Kirkby last week, where they were presented with their qualifications by former Liverpool stars John Barnes and Michael Thomas.

“It's a much more well-rounded industry now in terms of taking into consideration 'the human being' as opposed to 'the player',” says Barnes.

“Whereas years ago, the footballers were the ones clubs cared about and took care of, but if you didn't make it, you were left on your own. 

"Years ago, when I was at a club, if you didn't make it, there was nothing else you could do. And while this may be a cyber security opportunity specifically, there may be other opportunities to go into further education as well, so it is a great thing.”

Dobie, who played alongside Alexander-Arnold as a teenager and now works full-time at the Ashworth high security psychiatric hospital in Maghull, as well doing some part-time scouting for Liverpool at youth level, is certainly grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s been a blessing, to be honest,” he says. “The support from the club, especially Phil and Caitlin, has been brilliant. It’s just good to know that they are still interested in their former players.”

John Barnes Michael Thomas Josh Sumner LiverpoolLFC

After leaving Liverpool at 18, Dobie admits he “massively fell out of love” with football. He tells a familiar tale, one of dropping down the levels and finding it hard to adjust. 

“You’re a kid, and you’re getting elbowed and kicked by all these old fellas,” he laughs. “You want to play out from the back and you can’t do that.

"And because you’ve been at Liverpool, you’re a target as well. People expect things from you, and it’s hard to get your head around.”

Thankfully, the love has returned in recent years. Dobie played for Prescot Cables last season and would like to find a club again this term, if his schedule permits.

Dunn has signed permanently at Marine, while Sumner, a midfielder who spent 10 years at Liverpool before being released in 2012, is one of the stars of the competitive Sunday League scene on Merseyside, regularly contributing spectacular goals for AFC Bull, many of which have been captured by the brilliant @MOTJGOALS Twitter account.

All three speak about the dangers of pursuing a career in professional football, and the pitfalls which await those who don’t consider, or prepare for, the worst-case scenario.

“You’re in a bubble,” Sumner, who now works as a mechanic, says. "You don’t think it’s ever gonna end, but it can end quickly, trust me.”

Dunn can certainly relate to that.

“When I was young, I was blinkered,” he says. “There was no doubt in my head that I was going to make it. I was progressing through the age groups, doing well, playing a year up, training with the first team. 

“It never crossed my mind that I could be let go.”

The message from all three is clear: think about the future, have a backup plan, learn and pick up skills that can help you, however your career eventually turns out.

“Football is ruthless, cut-throat,” says Dobie. “You always have to have a Plan B.

"I tell my little brother Zach that now. He’s in a similar situation to me, but I tell him to always have something in the back of his mind in case the worst happens.”

Dunn nods his head in agreement.

“I didn’t see any other avenue,” he says. “There was no back-up plan.

“Then, when I was playing semi-professional and working as a PT, the pandemic came and all of a sudden the football stopped and the gyms closed!

"So, that’s two sources of income stopping abruptly, and as a new father that was just…wow!”

He adds: “What I would always say to any young player is to learn as many skills as you can, give yourself as many opportunities as you can, because you never know. You think it’s going to last forever, football, but it doesn’t.

"And when it ends, what are you going to do?”