It is enriching to see a young talent grow in front of your eyes and Anfield had that pleasure with Harvey Elliott as Liverpool beat Burnley 2-0. Thrown in for his first Premier League start, the 18-year-old evolved from little boy lost against Sean Dyche’s dementors to a man made for the stage in the space of 90 nourishing minutes.
By the final whistle the nervy, mistake-ridden teen of the first half had been replaced by a figure of authority who crowned his afternoon by helping to set up Sadio Mane for Liverpool’s winner.
He walked down the tunnel blowing kisses to the crowd as they applauded back. Respect to Jurgen Klopp for picking an English prospect and for sticking with him when it threatened to unravel.
Elliott’s elevation fitted neatly into the narrative espoused by Klopp before the season kicked off that while their title rivals spent big Liverpool could not spend what they did not have. They would just have to make do with what they had and grow their own.
Elliott is an academy product who, while born in Chertsey, has the credentials for hometown hero status as a lifelong Liverpool fan who was taken to his first game at Anfield at the age of just three.
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As Elliott walked out to the strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone he took some grass, crossed himself and looked to the heavens. This was his childhood dream made real.
Burnley though, the team that ended Liverpool’s 68-game unbeaten home league run last season, are not about romance. Within two minutes of Elliott kicking the game off, he was writhing on the ground after being taken out by Josh Brownhill.
If there is one opponent in the Premier League primed to examine a teenager’s physical credentials it is Sean Dyche’s robust collective.
The no-nonsense undercoat to Burnley was reflected in a throwback exterior coat yesterday which saw Dyche put out a starting side wearing numbers one to 11. It was the first time the Premier League had seen such a thing this century.
Liverpool, by contrast, were a bingo card with a 66, a 32 and in Elliott a 67.
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For Liverpool this was supposed to be the day to celebrate the return to post-Covid normality with old friendships rekindled around the ground and familiar rituals renewed but the queues to gain entry were horrendous with some fans missing kick-off. The new ticketing system at Anfield clearly needs some work.
The 12.30pm kick-off made for a curiously sleepy atmosphere too with Burnley’s resilience helping to draw the Anfield sting.
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The noise Elliott heard early on was the booing of the Burnley fans when he touched the ball – he spent last season on loan on Blackburn. He was also on the end of a Jordan Henderson roasting after twice losing out in tackles near his own penalty area.
There was one nicely weighted ball to Mo Salah in the 27th minute which the Egyptian despatched only for the goal to be ruled out for offside by VAR but on the whole it was not an easy introduction.
Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Mane – such company can be intimidating even for a player who is an old hand at this sort of thing having played in the Carabao Cup at 15 and come off the bench against Fulham in the league at 16.
Gradually though Elliott began to find his feet – and space – on the right-hand side of midfield and to combine ever more dangerously with Trent Alexander-Arnold. The touch grew more assured, the composure on the ball more measured.
And after briefly switching to the left to deliver a lovely cross to Salah who fired off a shot which Dwight McNeill blocked the shot on the line, his big moment arrived.
Demanding a cross-field ball from Van Dijk, Elliott brought it down beautifully on his chest and offloaded instantly to Alexander-Arnold who slid in Mane to score.
Control, vision, class – in a flash the game was done, Anfield was in full voice and a bright future was revealed.