Liverpool wonderkid Leighton impressing bosses at Anfield
Leighton Clarkson isn’t like most other teenagers. In fact, his life is far from what you’d consider to be ‘normal’ for a typical adolescent.
The midfielder, born and raised in Clitheroe, celebrates his 18th birthday on Saturday, but he won’t be marking the milestone with his first legal alcoholic beverage at the local pub.
Instead, it will more than likely be a low-key affair with friends and family in the Ribble Valley as he readies himself for a return to Melwood, the training base of European champions Liverpool.
The Reds youngster was recruited by the club at the age of seven after being handpicked by a scout while playing for Clitheroe Wolves — a moment that could define the rest of his life.
The creative middle man is going places and the words of Jurgen Klopp, assistant Pep Lijnders and coach Barry Lewtas will testify.
The Academy product, who is determined to follow the career paths of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and Trent Alexander-Arnold, has continuously impressed the trio.
Just last month, after receiving an invitation to train with the first team, Klopp’s second in command had said: “He has the capacity to play the passes these type of forwards like to receive, he is the type of number six we really like.
“The one who can dictate play, but dictate with direction, who can speed up the tempo of the positional play, the one who has always time on the ball.”
High praise, indeed, from the Dutchman, who has seen the Under 18s star mix it with the likes of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, Virgil van Dijk and the rest of the Champions League winning squad.
Clarkson, who signed his first professional contract at Anfield in the summer, on the back of the success in the FA Youth Cup following the dramatic penalty shootout victory over Manchester City in the final, recalled the moment that everything changed for him.
“I was going in to training one day and Barry [Lewtas], my coach, took me to one side, explained what was happening and wished me good luck,” he said.
“I just tried to approach it like it was a normal training session, but it was weird at first. I was nervous and excited to see what it was like to train with the first team.
“As soon as I got going the nerves went. All the players and the manager [Jurgen Klopp] came over and asked me how I was doing.”
He added: “Every one of them spoke to me and made sure that I wasn’t alone. The first few times I was the only one from my age group that trained. I was on my own and they were all very approachable. They all helped me through it.
“Training with the first team and speaking to the players like they’re normal people gives you an understanding of what it’s like to become a professional footballer.
“It was just surreal, something you dream about doing as a kid. They’re all world class players, they’re all so well known. It was a privilege to train with them.”
The closest most people Clarkson’s age get to experiencing anything like that is on a console. That had once been the case for him too, controlling his favourite players on FIFA, but now he’s getting to move the ball around with his heroes for real.
He said: “I’d played as them on FIFA, I know how good they are, but then I got to train with them in real life. They were all very talkative, they were really down to earth.
“James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane were the players who I probably spoke to the most.”
However, that was just the beginning. Clarkson was since named in the 18-man squad that travelled to the Stadium:mk in the Carabao Cup.
Clarkson, an unused substitute for the third round tie against MK Dons, was among a host of prospects to join first teamers Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez, Milner, Nabi Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana.
“I was on the bench for the first team in the Carabao Cup at MK Dons, that was a big achievement for me, and he [Klopp] told me to keep going and that he wanted to see me getting more opportunities like that.
“It was crazy and it didn’t sink in until I got off the team bus. All the fans were there waiting, shouting our names. It was surreal.”
Another opportunity could become when the current Premier League leaders host Arsenal in the next round of the competition later in the month.
And, should those moments continue to present themselves, Clarkson will be looking to grab them with both hands.
After all, given the environment that he’s in, he doesn’t have to look too far for inspiration and motivation.
“I need to be playing for the Under 23s more regularly and making the most of the opportunity whenever I get to train with the first team,” said Clarkson, who has represented England at youth level.
“Hopefully these chances will keep coming.
“Alexander-Arnold was once in the position that I’m in now. To see what he has done for the club makes you start to think about what you can achieve and it makes you realise that it’s not too far away. Now I’m starting to believe.
“There have been so many legends that have been here during my time at Liverpool. There have been lots of brilliant players. Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres used to pop by the academy and show their faces. There’s inspiration wherever you look.
“I do believe that I can have a career in football. It would be a proud moment for myself and my family to walk out at Anfield for the first time. Playing for Liverpool would be the best thing ever. I’m going to do my best to get there.”