For Barry Lewtas, the journey started against Manchester City.
He remembers his second game in charge of Liverpool’s under-15s, and the beating his side took that day. Three years on, the memories are still raw.
“It was a Premier League qualifier,” he says. “It was on the back pitch at Kirkby and we lost to City.
“I think Bobby Duncan scored two but he says he scored three! Whatever it was, it was a heavy defeat to a very good City side. We sat down afterwards and we said that this was the start for us, we had to build from there.”
Three years on, the teams meet again, this time at under-18 level. Duncan has swapped the blue of City for the red of Liverpool, and will be gunning for his former club in Thursday’s FA Youth Cup final. The rivalry between the two clubs is not only fierce at first-team level.
“The City games were always benchmarks for us,” says Lewtas, who is looking to mark his first year as under-18s coach in style.
“All the way through under-15s and under-16s, they were THE game. And we got closer and closer and closer, and then when we got to under-16s the tables started to turn slightly and the games became a lot more competitive.
“I think it’s quite fitting that it’s City in the final. I feel sort of like it was meant to be. But I hope I’m saying that after the final!”
The presence of Duncan, of course, will add an extra layer of intrigue to the game. The striker, born in Liverpool, spent seven years at City but joined the Reds last summer after a messy contract dispute. His first season on Merseyside has brought 31 goals, including the winner when the sides met at Kirkby in October.
Duncan’s celebration that day spoke of his feeling towards his former club, and Lewtas admits he will have a quiet word with his top scorer ahead of Thursday’s game, just to keep his emotions in check.
“Yeah, it probably will be something I think about,” he says.
“You don’t want him to get caught up in the occasion, we want him to play the football he has played so far this season. There will certainly be a reminder to him and a few words, but he’s been here long enough now to be fine. Earlier in the season, he hadn’t been here that long. It’ll be a little word in his ear and away we go.”
For Lewtas and his squad, preparation for the final has not been ideal. The Reds were disappointed with the scheduling of the game, having initially expected the final to be played in mid-March. Pleas to the Football Association, to Manchester City and to BT Sport fell on deaf ears.
As a result, Liverpool were forced to cut short their annual trip to Texas for the Dallas Cup, returning to Merseyside on Saturday morning. Initially, they were supposed to remain in the States until Wednesday.
“It was definitely disappointing,” Lewtas says. “We went to Dallas for a whole host of reasons. We played in the Cotton Bowl in front of 20,000 people in the first game which was a great experience, but we had lots of cultural and charity stuff over there too, and it was a shame that we had to cut that short.
“We were disappointed, but the game is on now and that’s the main thing.
“It’s all part of the experience. The day we returned from Dallas, if we’d have had to play a Youth Cup final the following night, I don’t think that would have been right. I was tired myself, and you could see the lads were.
“Now we’re back and in the swing of things, I feel like I’ve been back for weeks. It’s done and dusted now and we’re just concentrating on the game. But it was a concern, definitely.”
The fact that the game will be played at City’s Academy Stadium, too, is a talking point. Traditionally, the Youth Cup final has been played over two legs, but that has changed for this season. A draw gave City home advantage.
“We have spoken about that,” says Lewtas. “It is an away game.
“I do agree that the Youth Cup Final should go to one leg because there are no other two-legged finals in senior football, so it is good for the boys to get used to a one-off final. That is the right thing to do.
“Whether it should be played at someone’s home stadium, I am not completely convinced. The team they will put out on Thursday, a lot of them play under-23s football and that is their home pitch. It would be unwise for us not to prepare the boys for an away game.
“It will be a full house. A lot more Man City fans there. We have built it up that way, we are looking forward to the challenge of going into their backyard.
“Would it make it sweeter? You would have to ask the lads that. My job is just to prepare them. There is a nice rivalry between the two groups, a long-standing rivalry. A little bit more needle there, little bit of competitiveness. It will be exciting.”
He adds: “The message this week has been about not settling on reaching the final, not being content being second in the league.
“I think if you want to play here that is not enough. If you go back to the first team then second place is not what they are playing for. They are trying to win the league and the Champions League, and that is very much the message here: don’t settle, don’t be happy that you have got to a final. That is not the club you are at.
“We are in the final and we have to do our best to win and not fall short. That is definitely the message. We will not be a tourist there and think City are better than us. We’re going there to win.”