The Reds have high hopes for their 17-year-old Dutchman, who on Wednesday will be named among the 50 best teenagers in world football
It didn’t take Ki-Jana Hoever long to make an impact on Jurgen Klopp.
One training session, in fact, was all it took for the Dutchman’s precocious talent to emerge.
It was just before Christmas, with Liverpool’s senior squad decimated by injuries, particularly in defence. Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold were all on the missing list, leaving Klopp’s first-team pool short.
Hoever was summoned. The reports from the Reds’ Academy in Kirkby were glowing, and so he made the five-mile trip across to Melwood. His first test? A 9v9 training match, marking Mohamed Salah.
Those who were there witnessed some performance. Hoever, a month short of his 17th birthday, held his own against Liverpool’s star man. He was smart and aggressive, confident and composed. At the end of the session, the talk among the senior players was simple.
‘Who is this kid?!’
Within three weeks Hoever would be introduced to a wider audience, handed his professional debut in front of the nation in a televised FA Cup tie at Wolves. At 16 years and 354 days, he became the third-youngest player in the Reds’ history. Some story.
Hoever only made his under-18s debut in September, but his rise since has been as rapid as it was unexpected. Liverpool staff believe they have another potential gem on their hands. Indeed, it will come as no surprise to anyone at Melwood that Hoever has been included in the 2019 NxGn – Goal’s annual list of the 50 best teenagers in world football. He is the third youngest player on the list, which will be announced in full on Wednesday.
Liverpool had seen off healthy competition to land Hoever. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United were all keen on signing the youngster once his contract with Ajax expired last June, but Reds chief scout Barry Hunter and Academy director Alex Inglethorpe invested a lot of time convincing Hoever and his family that Merseyside was the place for him.
Hunter had tracked his progress for a year after spotting him at a youth tournament in Amsterdam. He’d seen his calmness in possession and noted the way he read the game. The fact that he was comfortable at both full-back and centre-back was a bonus. Liverpool, in fact, wonder whether he could even develop into a holding midfield player in the future.
The deal was a no-brainer, in financial terms. Hoever was too young to sign a professional contract with Ajax, and so was free to move wherever he chose. Liverpool, under FIFA rules, had only to pay a modest compensation fee of €100,000 for one of Europe’s brightest talents. Had Hoever been playing at an English club, the Reds would have been looking at 10 times that fee.
Liverpool’s charm offensive worked. Hoever arrived on Merseyside in late-July, though his debut for Barry Lewtas’ under-18s side would be delayed as they waited for international clearance. His performances in training, though, had staff excited. “One to watch,” was the word from Kirkby.
By November he was a fixture in Lewtas’ side, whether at right-back or in the centre of defence, and was featuring for the under-19s in the UEFA Youth League, alongside Melwood regulars Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho.
His under-23s debut would follow, a chastening experience as Liverpool were stuffed 7-0 by Villarreal in the Premier League International Cup. Hoever, at right-back, was the only bright spot on a miserable night for Neil Critchley’s side.
Four days later he was back with the 23s, this time at Goodison Park in the mini-derby with Everton, playing as a right wing-back. Everton fielded the likes of Jonjoe Kenny, Tyias Browning and Kieran Dowell, but it was Hoever who stole the show.
Even Critchley, an experienced youth coach who is always careful to avoid hyperbole, could not disguise his excitement.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Sixteeen. Just…wow!”
A few weeks later came that call from Melwood. Liverpool’s assistant manager, Pep Lijnders, welcomed Hoever before his first session. Lijnders, a fellow Dutchman, plays a vital role in ensuring that young players are integrated into Klopp’s senior training squad and he, like everyone, has been impressed by what he has seen from Hoever.
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There is nothing flashy, no ego, just a quiet, well-mannered kid with excellent English and talent to burn. Having turned 17 in January, his first professional contract will follow shortly.
Staff, naturally, are keen to ensure there is not too much hype around one player. They know that the path to the top is laced with trappings and pitfalls, and that there are no guarantees even with the most gifted of youngsters.
The early signs, though, are overwhelmingly positive. We’ll surely be hearing a lot more about Ki-Jana Hoever in the coming months and years.