When you approach a stop light, you see one of three colours: green, yellow, or red. Each colour represents a different action that you should take. When the light is green, you take your foot off of the brakes and step on the gas. Green means go and everyone knows that. When the light is red, you slow down, stop, and wait for the light to turn green until you proceed with your journey. Green and red are universal colours for stop and go. However, yellow represents a blurred line. What is clear is that when the light turns yellow is that you have two choices – speed up and force your way through the intersection or slow down and prepare for a safe stop at the light to avoid getting a ticket or even worse, getting involved in an accident.
This may seem like an odd way to start a football article and I found myself thinking the same thing but when you are an academy prospect your career is much like a stop light. In this specific case, the driver of the car is Ben Woodburn and the stoplight represents his career.
Green Means Go
Ben Woodburn burst onto the world footballing scene in 2016 during Liverpool’s pre-season tour in an impressive 45-minute performance against Fleetwood Town. The then 16-year-old came on at halftime against scoring a goal and adding an assist to his belt. Liverpool went on to win the game 5-0.
Supporters had a reason to be excited and believed that Jurgen Klopp had just unearthed a gem from the Academy.
Woodburn was once again a halftime sub in Liverpool’s next pre-season game, scoring another goal in the Red’s 2-0 victory over Wigan Athletic. He was also named Man of the Match for his performance.
Fast-forward four months and Woodburn was gifted his first competitive debut in Liverpool’s Premier League contest against Sunderland. The attacker came on for the last few minutes of Liverpool’s 2-0 win to a large applause. Ben Woodburn’s Liverpool career was looking bright and Jurgen Klopp had just given his career the green light.
Ben Woodburn became an established first-team player throughout the 2016/2017 season. He went on to be an un-used substitute 12 times in the League and two times in the EFL Cup. The young Welshman was a sub in five league matches (total of 83 minutes), one EFL Cup match (23′) and given 3 starts in the FA Cup (90’/90’/75′, 255 total minutes). He only managed a single goal in 361 minutes of game time, but the goal against Leeds made him the youngest-ever Liverpool scorer. At just 17 years and 45 days old he broke Michael Owen’s record at 17 years, 143 days. His performances continued to impress and won him the plaudits of supporters and then Wales manager, Chris Coleman, who gave him his senior debut. Woodburn repaid responded by scoring the winning goal in Wales 1-0 win over Austria.
Ben Woodburn scored a fantastic debut goal for Wales right after the fans finished singing their anthem. What an atmosphere, what a moment ! pic.twitter.com/1jqry0qD6s
— Claude Wu (@claudewuAFC) September 2, 2017
Yellow: What Do We Do Now?
Liverpool’s 2017/2018 season began with a pre-season tour that seemed like a great opportunity for Ben Woodburn to prove to Klopp that he could be counted on. Liverpool played Sydney FC to celebrate the clubs 125th anniversary to kick things off, which saw Liverpool legend’s Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher play alongside each other in front of a packed crowd of 77,000 people. Ben Woodburn put in a 90-minute shift and helped Liverpool cruise comfortably to a 3-0 victory. Even though Woodburn looked good in his appearance, Aaron Chen and his unforgettable halftime commentary stole the show.
Liverpool’s actual pre-season tour saw Ben Woodburn make three appearances against Tranmere Rovers, Wigan Athletic, and Athletic Bilboa in which he played for 44′, 46′, and 44′ respectively. Woodburn scored once in each of the Wigan and Bilboa matches bringing his goal tally to 2 as the pre-season closed. With a respectable warmup to the season, many thought that Woodburn would build on his 16/17 success and cement himself a place in Jurgen Klopp’s first-team plans. A month after his last pre-season appearance, he came on as a halftime sub in Liverpool’s 2-0 loss to Leicester City that saw them bounced from the Carabao Cup. Many took to Twitter to voice their approval of his performance and expected him to see some more action in the near future. This is where the light turned yellow for Woodburn’s career and nobody was really sure what would happen next.
— LFC Transfer Room (@LFCTransferRoom) January 5, 2018
Between Woodburn’s Carabao Cup appearance in September and the January window opening, he made a grand total of zero first team appearances. This prompted rumours and reports that Ben Woodburn was on his way to Championship side Sunderland on loan to help them in their battle to avoid relegation. The Welsh international would have joined his Academy teammate, Ovie Ejaria, and former Wales manager Chris Coleman in search of first-team football.
However, just 3 days after the initial reports of Sunderland’s interest in Woodburn, Liverpool sanctioned the British record sale of Philippe Coutinho to FC Barcelona. Transfer rumours began to fly about of who Klopp would bring in to replace the playmaking Brazilian. In the end, Klopp deemed that a replacement was not needed after all and midway through the window it was announced that Woodburn would be staying put and that his loan move to Sunderland was cancelled.
Ben Woodburn is set to stay at Liverpool, despite interest from Sunderland & Woodburn himself willing to go out on loan. Jürgen Klopp doesn’t want to weaken his attacking options any further following the sales of Philippe Coutinho. [@JamesPearceEcho] #LFC pic.twitter.com/pUX0h2aapL
— LFC Transfer Room (@LFCTransferRoom) January 18, 2018
Woodburn’s career went from potential “breakout season” to a complete stop in a matter of days. It seemed he was at the point where he could slam the accelerator and race through the yellow light in front of him but it was too late, the light had turned red.
Red: Coming to a Full Stop
After Woodburn’s loan move to Sunderland collapsed many Liverpool supporters were adamant he should get a run in the first team – myself included. Since Countinho’s £142,000,000 transfer to Barcelona, Liverpool have played 20 matches. Ben Woodburn has not featured in a single match. It wasn’t until Liverpool’s abysmal 0-0 draw against Stoke City that I began to wonder, why doesn’t Ben Woodburn get a shot?
Liverpool struggled to get the attacking juices flowing in what turned out to be a disappointing draw to relegation fodder Stoke City. In the 65th minute, I found myself scratching my head when Klopp opted to deploy a rusty defender just fresh off an injury (Nathaniel Clyne) in an attacking position over a young and motivated attacker when LFC so desperately needed a goal.
I asked myself, have supporters made Ben Woodburn into something that he’s not? Surely if he was on Klopp’s radar he would have gotten the nod in a match that saw heavy rotations for the team to get ready for their mid-week match against Roma in the Champions League semis. It seems that Ben Woodburn’s career has been sitting at the red light for far too long now and that the proposed loan move to Sunderland would have greatly helped his development.
I know that it is a little early to write someone off at the young age of 18, but it seems that his seemingly bright career has come to a screeching halt at a red light. A red light in the shape of the best front three in world football and a packed midfield. But Klopp sees him everyday in training and has an insight that us as supporters do not have. So it is entirely possible that we have made him into a first-team ready player when in reality he could be a year or two away from challenging for minutes.
Assuming that he doesn’t get called upon in Liverpool’s *hopefully* 2 upcoming Champions League matches, that leaves just 2 games in the 17/18 campaign for Woodburn to make his mark. If Liverpool can secure their top-4 place against Chelsea on Sunday, I think that it is safe to assume that he will see the pitch in Liverpool’s last home game of the season against Brighton. However, nobody could have predicted the season that he has had thus far and it is all just a game of colour roulette to see if the light will turn green, yellow, or red.