The Liverpool kids who won the Cup – with some help from Virgil van Dijk

As he sat in the victorious Wembley dressing room with a winner’s medal draped around his neck and Dua Lipa’s ‘One Kiss’ blaring out of the sound system, a smile crept across Virgil van Dijk’s face.

“They thought I was finished,” said Liverpool’s talismanic captain wryly.

It was a pointed reference to the criticism he received last season when Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield reign lurched alarmingly off the rails. No one has contributed more than Van Dijk to the club’s thrilling resurgence since.

How he has embraced taking on greater responsibility since being handed the armband following Jordan Henderson’s departure last summer. How he has returned to operating at the peak of his powers.

Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate bask in their success in the Wembley dressing room (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

This was an epic tale of the master and his apprentices combining to help Liverpool complete the first leg of a possible quadruple during Klopp’s emotion-fuelled farewell tour.

The circumstances were remarkable. They had no right to win this Carabao Cup final. When Ryan Gravenberch departed on a stretcher midway through the first half after a dreadful challenge from Moises Caicedo, Klopp had been left without a dozen members of his senior squad due to injury.

As an energy-sapping contest took its toll, the manager boldly turned to the rookies behind him on the bench. Teenagers Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns boasted just 15 first-team appearances between them.

Jarell Quansah, a veteran in comparison at the age of 21, followed during extra-time. Conor Bradley had earlier run himself into the ground before being replaced. Five young academy products on the biggest of stages against Chelsea’s expensively assembled line up. Common sense dictated that Liverpool would ultimately be found wanting.

Yet rather than wilt, they stood tall. There was courage, composure and resilience in abundance. Klopp’s faith was emphatically repaid.

“Everything was prepared for us losing the game, but we just didn’t accept it and that’s really cool,” said Klopp. “I loved how brave the boys were. It’s a wonderful story.”

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Klopp takes in the post-match scene at Wembley (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

They had the perfect leader and role model in Van Dijk, who exuded calm as he dealt with all the danger that came in his direction and inspired those around him. Behind the skipper was the outstanding Caoimhin Kelleher; in front was the tireless Wataru Endo.

How fitting that Van Dijk, who had earlier seen a header contentiously ruled out, made the decisive contribution when he nodded home Kostas Tsimikas’ corner deep into extra time to spark wild celebrations. His legs heavy with fatigue, he dropped at the feet of the Greek left-back before being mobbed by his team-mates.

“My first trophy as Liverpool captain and I’m so proud of this team,” he said. “It’s something I will cherish forever.”

As they walked up the Wembley steps, the imperious Van Dijk was adamant that Klopp should lift the trophy with him, a gesture that meant a great deal to the manager. “I would have preferred him to do it alone but he really wanted me to put my hand on it and I like that,” Klopp said. “It’s such a special moment for Virg. I know how much he loves the club and the role.”

There were wide-eyed expressions on the faces of the youngsters during the rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as players and staff linked arms in front of the jubilant Liverpool end. The enormity of what they had contributed to was just starting to sink in as they headed down the tunnel and were reunited with their families in the players’ lounge.

What a story they have to tell the grandkids one day.

Liverpool-born Danns, 18, found himself leading the line at Wembley having only made a brief senior debut off the bench against Luton Town four days earlier.

The son of former Crystal Palace and Bolton midfielder Neil Danns, he is the academy’s leading scorer with 21 goals so far this season and has been on the books at Kirkby since the age of eight after being spotted playing futsal locally. Danns was sidelined for nearly a year due to knee pain caused by Osgood-Schlatter’s disease after rapidly growing from 5ft 2ins to 6ft, but he has developed impressively over the course of this season and has filled out physically.

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McConnell, Danns and Trey Nyoni celebrate with the trophy (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

McConnell, 19, arrived from Sunderland at the age of 15 initially as an attacking midfielder, but Klopp and Pep Lijnders taught him the holding role last pre-season after Fabinho and Henderson had their heads turned by lucrative offers from Saudi Arabia.

He proved to be a fast learner and his leadership qualities were recognised when he was given the under-21s’ captaincy by coach Barry Lewtas.

Clark, who was signed from Newcastle United in 2021, was the subject of plenty of loan interest from Football League clubs in January but those approaches were rebuffed as Liverpool felt they needed to keep him on board as cover. Given the injuries that followed, it was a smart move for all parties.

The son of former Newcastle United midfielder Lee Clark has made seven of his nine senior appearances for Liverpool since the turn of the year and, on each occasion, he has stood out with his work both on and off the ball.

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Clark takes on Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“The development of Bobby Clark is really crazy, I have to say,” added Klopp. “The development of James McConnell is absolutely insane, and Jayden Danns has only recently joined us in first-team training. I loved him from the first second.

“Can you create football stories which definitely nobody will ever forget? If you find the same story with academy players coming on against a top side and still winning it, I never heard it.”

Quansah and Bradley are higher profile than the other three given their greater first-team exposure, but it is worth remembering just how far they have come in such a short space of time. A year ago they were on loan in the third tier at Bristol Rovers and Bolton Wanderers respectively.

Injuries to Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold opened the door for them at Liverpool this season and they have run right through it. Quansah has been at Liverpool since the age of five, while Bradley was nine when he joined Liverpool’s Northern Ireland development centre. These have been long-term projects for academy director Alex Inglethorpe and his staff.

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“I don’t think I can actually put this into words,” beamed Bradley. “I’ve supported this club since I was about five years old, so to win a trophy with them at Wembley… I’m just buzzing.

“I think it all comes from the gaffer, the confidence that he puts in us youngsters. It makes it much easier coming into the first team when the under-21s and under-18s all play the same way. He’s such a special manager to work under. I just need to cherish every moment I have left with him because obviously he is going in the summer.”

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Harvey Elliott, himself only 20, and Klopp take it all in (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

The production line of talent Klopp will be leaving behind certainly bodes well for the future. The challenge is to ensure that structure and culture remain intact.

“The young boys were fearless,” admitted Andy Robertson.

“They played with belief and freedom. When everyone turned up for the pre-match meal, you could see all the quality players that we had missing. Credit to the youngsters — you could see the excitement in them when they realised they were going to get a chance. 

“They brought fresh legs and composure on the ball that enabled us to keep pushing. Then probably the oldest player on the pitch goes and gets the winner for us. He was different class as well. We went with everything we had and ended up with winners’ medals.”

(Top photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

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