It may have ended prematurely but Barry Lewtas can reflect on another productive season with Liverpool’s Under-18 side. A farewell season, as it turns out.
It will be a summer of change at Kirkby. Lewtas has this week been confirmed as the Reds’ new Under-23s manager, replacing Neil Critchley, who left to take charge of League One outfit Blackpool in March.
Since succeeding Steven Gerrard as Under-18s boss in 2018, the 39-year-old has impressed everybody – including, crucially, Liverpool’s Academy director, Alex Inglethorpe.
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Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, the Under-16s coach, will step up to the U18s for next season, and Lewtas says the former Port Vale midfielder will be taking over a group packed with talent and potential.
“It’s a very good group,” he tells Goal. “It’ll be exciting to see if they can hit the ground running. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how they develop.”
It should be pointed out that Lewtas’ move to the under-23s had not been announced when Goal caught up with him last week – though it was widely anticipated that he would move up. The purpose of the chat, though, was to look back on the season just gone, and to share some of the success stories from the last 12 months.
Those success stories have been plentiful. There may have been no silverware this year – Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup in Lewtas’ first season – but that doesn’t mean there has been nothing to celebrate.
“You can judge a season in different ways,” he says. “From the outside, people may say we went out of the Youth Cup early and we were so many points behind Manchester City in the league, but it’s not just about that.”
Lewtas points to the amount of players that have switched between the Under-18s and the Under-23s this season. The likes of Leighton Clarkson and Jake Cain are now regulars – both have spent time with Jurgen Klopp’s senior squad at Melwood, too – while the emergence of a host of first-year scholars has been equally pleasing.
Take Tom Hill and James Norris as just two examples. The baby-faced duo have been two of the star performers at under-18 level. At 17, both have played under-23 football, while both made their senior debut in that bizarre Carabao Cup quarter-final at Aston Villa back in December.
Hill started the game and the Formby-based forward’s development has been particularly eye-catching.
“It’s been a really good season for him,” Lewtas says. “Tom was in my team at Under-12s, and then at the back end of last year, just before the Youth Cup final, we travelled to America for the Dallas Cup. Tom and Layton Stewart came with us.
“He played against New York City. It was their Under-19 team and we basically played an under-17 side, but Tom was brilliant. He really impressed me that day with his attitude and commitment, and when he came back for pre-season, he carried that on.
“He’s very coachable, his attitude is spot on and his levels are good. He earned his place in the team. Credit to him, every challenge that’s been put down in front of him he’s risen to.”
Lewtas adds: “He’s very good out of possession, he is intelligent and understands that part of the game and how important it is. As a coach, you can trust him in those situations.
“He’s very tenacious, but he’s also got a real knack of running forward in key areas. He creates chances and he scores goals, and if you were listing skills for an attacking midfielder or a forward, they’d rank quite high wouldn’t they?!
“He’s someone with a lot of attributes. He’s had a really good season, and I’m so pleased for him because he’s worked so hard.”
Norris, meanwhile, is another local lad, who came off the bench at Villa Park. Born in West Derby, the all-action left-back came off the bench for the 'senior’ team at Villa Park and has featured for the Under-23s against Football League opposition in the Leasing.com Trophy.
He would have been part of England’s squad for the European U17 Championships in Estonia had the tournament not been cancelled.
“He’ll perhaps be one of the more disappointed ones about how the season has ended,” Lewtas says. “But he’s been a real good performer for us. He’s played in most of the games, and he’s moved up to the 23s and played there.
“I wanted to give him experience of playing different positions this season. We wanted to expand parts of his game technically, put him under a little bit of pressure. He’s been a real good performer for us. He’s had a real impact. He’s competitive, hates losing, and he sets good standards every single day.”
Both Hill and Norris, along with Layton Stewart, the 16-goal top scorer for the 18s this season, will be expected to continue their rise next season, whether at Under-18 or Under-23 level.
Billy Koumetio is another to have shown huge promise. The 17-year-old centre-back, who joined from French side Orleans FC in 2018, was on the bench for the senior side against Arsenal in October, and is seen as a player with big potential.
So, too, is James Balagizi, a midfielder who was tempted away from Manchester City in 2015, and who has already made his mark at Under-18 level.
“He’s done really well,” Lewtas says. “He’s got a head start on the rest of the Under-16s coming up next year. An opportunity came up this season and he took it.
“He’s had good exposure to Under-18s football. He’s probably played a few positions that aren’t natural to him, but he was a starter from day one, and that says a lot.
“It’ll be interesting to see how he evolves. When you come out of the schoolboy programme, that’s when you start forming a bit of an identity as a player and as a person. It becomes your job, and it’s about how you commit to it every day.
“I think he’ll be an attacking midfielder, a No.8, but he’s played deeper at times this season.
“That’s important. When I look at Premier League midfielders now, and let’s take Liverpool as an example, they can play in a number of positions. (Jordan) Henderson and (Gini) Wijnaldum are perfect examples. For a midfielder, you have to have as much as they can in your armoury.”
He adds: “It’s always exciting to see how the boys coming up develop. They’re swapping school for work, if you like. There is interest and attention, the scores get published now and you get a bit of profile. It is all a challenge and you have to rise to it, but I think they will. It’s a good group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they all progress."