Liverpool teenager describes the 'best moment' of his career after walking out at Anfield to make his first start for the club
Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence, Robbie Fowler, John Barnes, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, Steven Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish are among the most famous Liverpool legends to have graced the hallowed turf at Anfield.
Between them they’ve won league titles, European Cups, FA Cups, the Ballon d’Or, PFA Player of the Year awards and much more and they’ve provided some of the greatest spectacles in Reds history.
So it was an incredibly moving moment when 18-year-old Clitheroe footballer Leighton Clarkson walked out to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to perform under the lights on one of the world’s most iconic stages.
The teenage midfielder, who has starred for the club’s under 23s this term, featured in a three alongside Spaniard Pedro Chirivella and Jake Cain as Liverpool beat Shrewsbury Town in an FA Cup fourth round replay.
Clarkson, who started out with Clitheroe Wolves as a youngster, was replaced late on as a 75th minute own goal from Ro-Shaun Williams decided the tie.
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
“It will probably take a while to properly sink in. I had an idea that I was going to be playing about a week before.
“We had an under 23s game against Arsenal and there were a few of us that weren’t involved.
“We all trained at Melwood, we did a bit of work on the shape of the side and that gave us an indication of what the team was going to be.
“The XI was then confirmed on the day of the game.
“I didn’t really think too much about it.
“I had a bit of time to digest it because I knew what was happening in training.
“I didn’t want to build it up too much and start to feel nervous, but it hit me in the warm up.
“I started to feel a little bit nervous when I was coming out of the tunnel and then I was fine as soon as the whistle was blown.”
He added: “It was a completely different environment, but I tried to stick to my normal routine and treat it like any other game.
“I just tried to keep everything the same and block all the other stuff out.
“It was a moment that I won’t forget, it’s something that will stay with me forever. It was the best moment of my career so far.
“It’s the best thing that has happened to me and now that I’ve had that experience I just want it to continue.
“It’s another proud milestone.
“To make my first Liverpool start in an FA Cup win made the experience even better. I was absolutely buzzing.”
Clarkson was an unused substitute when Jurgen Klopp’s side progressed in the third round of the competition away at MK Dons and was introduced in the 77th minute, replacing Isaac Christie-Davies, at Villa Park in the 5-0 defeat in the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup.
The youngster thought his chance had gone when Aston Villa inflicted only Liverpool’s second defeat of the season across the board.
But that wasn’t the case. With the senior squad honouring the winter break it was left to academy coach Neil Critchley to take the reins as he named the youngest side in the club’s history.
And Clarkson’s family and friends, who have witnessed his development in the game first hand, were there to celebrate that huge milestone.
“I had a lot of people there watching; a lot of family and friends,” said Clarkson. “They’ve all been watching me play football since I was a young lad and I was striving for that moment. It was nice that they could share that with me.
“My dad, Wes, and grandad, Tony, have always supported Liverpool. That was one of the reasons behind me choosing Liverpool over Blackburn when I was younger.
“They both, along with my friends and family, believe in me and know that I can go further than I already have done.”
“It’s very special, even better than what you’d expect. You don’t really think about everything that’s happened until it’s over.
“I can start to reflect on it now that the game is done. Many legends have played in that stadium, which is one of the most iconic in the world.”
The Reds take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the last 16 on Tuesday, March 3rd and Clarkson, like many of his team-mates, is keeping his fingers crossed that he can be involved in some capacity.
With the fifth round tie sandwiched in-between Premier League games against Watford and AFC Bournemouth - and the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid taking place a week later - Klopp might look to rest some of his stars - including Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino.
Clarkson said: “We’re all hoping to be involved in the next one, but that all depends on the first team and how they approach the tie.
“After the Villa defeat many of us felt that that was our moment gone, especially with the first team doing unbelievably well. But the club has shown faith in us and we delivered a good performance. We all deserved it.
“I just want to keep improving and have as much involvement with the first team as I can. I’m training with some of the best players in the world and it’s good to learn from them.”