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01st Aug 2018

Rhian Brewster exclusive: The (Golden) Boy Next Door

Melissa Reddy

It was an ordinary afternoon and the conversation with his father, Ian, had started off like most others. It was so unexceptionable, in fact, that Rhian Brewster can’t quite recall where it happened or what exactly prompted its modification into a career-defining discussion.

Then 14 and perched in the top tier of Chelsea’s academy prospects, the forward arrived at a realisation that required decisive action. 

“There was nothing special or different about that day,” Brewster tells JOE in Liverpool’s idiosyncratic Baltic Triangle area. “It was after football, and as usual, my dad and I spoke about how it went and the areas I wanted to do extra work on. We then got talking about players who were doing well at the academy and ones that had done so in the past. I realised all the names we were mentioning hadn’t played for Chelsea’s first-team and there didn’t seem to be a chance for those still at the club to get promoted to the seniors. 

“I spent lot of time thinking about that and I kept asking myself why that was. There were some unbelievable youngsters at the academy. It became clear that the problem was opportunities and that they weren’t being made available, even to guys we thought would 100 per cent move up.

“I thought ‘Okay I think I’m good enough, but do they actually believe I am good enough to eventually make it in the first team?’ At the time, I didn’t see any signs that it was possible to push for that with any player there, so the question sort of answered itself.

“I didn’t want to leave because I’d been there for so long, I did love Chelsea and they played a big part in my early development. I was enjoying my time there and I made so many friends for life. I knew that it wasn’t about what was comfortable and the easy option, but what was best for me.

“I looked at a lot of clubs and their plans, but Liverpool stood out to me. I liked their approach to development and things just felt right. They were the best choice for me then and they still are now.

“I’m very glad I took the decision, that I was clear in my thinking. So many people were saying it’s a big thing for a kid to consider, but I didn’t look at it like that. 

“I knew I wanted to be a professional footballer, I knew it wouldn’t be a smooth journey and I was determined to do whatever was necessary to put me on the right path.”

Brewster’s inner circle were not astounded by his clarity of thought and courage to make a such a sizeable change at a young age. It is, they say, a discernible characteristic of the teenager that frames his story as it flows.

His mother, Hulya Hassan, labels her son “very determined,” while his dad describes him as “unassuming, but assertive with football.” Leon Anderson, the player’s representative and director at F2 Talent, picks “assured and committed” as appropriate tags for his client.

“I’m laid-back, I love to have a laugh and I can be childish, but when it comes to football and things I’m passionate about, I take it very seriously,” the 18-year-old says. 

“My dad told me that as a baby I would be happiest when I had a ball and my mum said it used to be a nightmare to take it off me, even when I was two years old.”

Brewster laughs when his football ancestry becomes a talking point. “My dad thinks he was a really good,” he reveals, accompanied by a facepalm. He only played semi-pro and was a goalkeeper, so I definitely didn’t get it from him!

“Since I could walk, I would go watch him play and have a kickabout with his friends. Looking back, I suppose I was just built with a love for the game.”

Brewster came fitted with obvious talent too, which by age seven, had attracted the attention of West Ham, Arsenal, Charlton and Chelsea.

He made an immediate impression on Martin Taylor, who was the youth scout for the latter while playing at the Shield Academy in Barkingside. Within two minutes of watching Brewster, Taylor was talking about signing him up. In those 120 seconds, the “short, skinny kid” left markers in his shadow and on the turf, before scoring and rushing back in position to repeat the process. 

He wasn’t just supremely skilled, he already had “an appetite for success.”

Dan Seymour, who coached Brewster at the Shield Academy, had known it would take minimum time for a top club to make their move for a “natural, fearless player.”

Chelsea were successful with their pitch, but West Ham had pushed hard for the youngster too. They discovered his father was a Liverpool supporter and invited the pair to watch a game at Upton Park against the Reds.

Brewster took a few snaps with players of both teams afterwards, but one image remains a standout: the eight-year-old in a beanie and a Hammers jacket stood smiling in front of Steven Gerrard, who has his arms on the boy’s shoulders.

That their careers would dovetail at Liverpool’s Academy base in Kirkby less than a decade later seems poetic. 

Brewster, who grew up in Goodmayes and Dagenham before anchoring in Romford, opted for Chelsea and had to navigate being “the footballer” at Chadwell Primary. “Loads of people wanted to be on my team and they’d be annoyed if they had to be on the opposition side and play against me,” he remembers. “You did get people who wanted to hurt me sometimes too, so I had to be a bit careful.”

“I can’t lie, I wasn’t the most focused in class,” Brewster, who only enjoyed physical education and drama at school, adds.

“My mind would drift to when I could play again. I would sit there thinking ‘oh, a break is coming up, or it’s not that long till lunch, or who am I going to pretend to be when we play after school?’

“I would run to the playground whenever I could with the boys, and when I got home, I used to play on the streets with my neighbours.

“At Chadwell Academy, we had a good football team and I kept playing when I could get a ball in – break, lunch, before school, after school – honestly, just whenever it was possible.”

Being a teen obsessed with football and minded to make a career out of it comes with an overflow of sacrifices. 

“My friends want to go out, they want to be typical boys our age but I can’t do that stuff,” Brewster says. “I train or do rehab, rest and play and the cycle continues.

“I’m not even complaining because this is what I want to do – I wouldn’t want to be in any other career so I’ll do what I have to do reach my ambitions.”

Brewster doesn’t dwell on what he has to surrender, but spotlights the selflessness of his parents instead.

“At the beginning my dad moved to Merseyside before returning home and later my mum did too,” he says.

“She’s a hairdresser and sold part of her business. She would often travel between the two cities to meet her clients, which I could see was hard for her. My mum lived here up until just before Christmas 2016 and then went back.

“My dad left his job for a while when he was here, but then returned to Tradeteam as a manager.

“I’m very grateful for all they’ve done for me and the support they’ve shown with every decision I make. They’re always available to give advice and there to push me to improve. They help me appreciate the things I maybe don’t realise I should be celebrating.”

When discussing family, there’s another person Brewster feels he has to mention. “Uncle Lee,” he says of his agent Anderson, “I’ve known practically all my life. Biologically, he is not a relative, but he is definitely blood to me.

“When I needed someone to represent me, it was never a choice – he was going to be the one.

“He has always cared about me as a person – not just the footballer. He is genuine, always tells it to me like it is and I know he concentrates on what is best for my development. He looks out for me and is much more than an agent.”

Brewster has already repaid all of them in kind. Hulya and Jaylece, his younger sister, flew out to India for the Under-17 World Cup last year. A travel delay saw them race through the airport before heading straight to Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata for England’s semi-final against Brazil.

The pair watched as the No. 9 scored a hat-trick to scorch the South Americans just four days after he had achieved the same feat against the United States.

They then witnessed Brewster ignite a comeback at the same stadium in the final, where England reduced a 2-0 deficit to be crowned champions following a 5-2 victory over Spain.

The attacker’s strike to start the blitz in front of the 66,684 in attendance was his eighth of the tournament, leading to Golden Boot honours.

After the game, he posed alongside his mum and sister with the World Cup trophy. The former held his individual award in her hand and Jaylece was draped in an England flag, leaning towards her brother wearing a gigantic smile.

Brewster’s father was on holiday in America, but watched every match and texted him throughout the showpiece. Leon, meanwhile, would receive FaceTime calls from the stadium and was also only a message away.

“That moment and achievement was for them as much as it was for me,” Brewster says. “Any success I have belongs to them too. They’ve motivated me while making sure I never feel like I’ve made it. They keep me grounded, but hungry as well.”

Before that triumph, there was a test to overcome. In the Round of 16, England faced a shootout with Japan following a goalless draw. Five months earlier, Brewster had endured the first real agony of his international career – it had come from the spot in the Under-17 European Championship final against Spain. 

“I wanted to take a penalty against Japan,” he says. “I wasn’t scared of missing. I don’t fear failing because not trying is much worse. It was very disappointing to even have a shootout against Spain at the Euros as we conceded in the last minutes of the game.

“And it was really gutting for myself and Joel [Latibeaudiere] to miss our kicks. We knew that the hurt could drive us on and so it was very satisfying to go on and beat Spain in the World Cup final.”

Brewster scored thrice at the Euros, held in Croatia. And in the same country in 2016, he scored a hat-trick against the host nation before twice piercing Germany’s rearguard.

When he returned to Merseyside that October after sparkling performances in the Croatia Cup, a different kind of shine was required from the starlet.

“At Liverpool’s Academy, we’d all take turns to go and spend time with the homeless at a shelter and when I got back, it was my time,” Brewster recalls.

“I scrubbed the toilets, would help clean up the rest of the place, do painting or whatever I could help with and just spend time with the people listening to their stories or chatting about football.

“It wasn’t a chore or something just to tick off for me. I enjoy the experience and it’s important to show love and care to people – there’s already too much hate and negativity in the world.”

Those regular visits from Liverpool’s young players were not PR opportunities. No club tracksuits were won, no cameras were around and no statements were emailed out about them. “The academy staff don’t just want us to be good footballers, but good people too,” Brewster says. “They have taught us important values and I like that approach because I believe there’s no need to be big time. 

“I’m just a human being like you or anyone else. We have different jobs and different circumstances or whatever, but it doesn’t make me any better. I also don’t feel the need to boast about things as if you’re doing well, being respectful, being kind, being professional, other people will boast on your behalf.”

When Brewster speaks, it is easy to lose sight of the fact he was only born in 2000.

He is not only eloquent but authentic. Brewster is magnetic and far from sheepish.

He isn’t afraid of using his voice to force change either, as was evidenced when he used his first major interview to tackle racism in The Guardian last December.

“There are some idiots out there, who don’t want to open their minds and who are very backward and wrong in their thinking,” Brewster, who had recounted seven occasions when he was racially abused or witnessed it happen to a team-mate, says.

“You want to hope that it doesn’t happen again, but it probably will and we need to be stronger in stamping it out of the game.”

The marksman, whose mother is Turkish Cypriot and whose father is from Barbados, hails from a multi-cultural home and has always enjoyed a blended environment at school or with football.  

“When you look at it, the people that have said racist things to try and make us feel bad about ourselves aren’t from mixed teams,” Brewster points out. “Spartak Moscow, for example, and Spain U17. Sevilla neither. The individuals being racist are the ones who should feel bad.

“They’ve sadly not been educated well enough and are still stuck in an unacceptable way of thinking.”

Has trying to show restraint, when being called – by Brewster’s account ‘you nigger, you negro’ – been the most challenging element of the embryonic stages of his career?

“Absolutely. You honestly just want to knock them out,” he admits. “It’s disgusting to speak to a fellow human being like that and it takes a lot of discipline to try and hold in your emotions.

“If you react, you put yourself in a situation where you get banned and it reflects badly on you too. 

“We’ve unfortunately got to learn to deal with it – which we really shouldn’t have to and I’ll never accept being treated like that – but it’s important to try and rise above their behaviour. It says more about them than anyone else.”

Nine years after putting his hands on Brewster’s shoulders for that picture, Gerrard twice propped them up last year as his manager.

The forward was a target of racial slurs – first in September during a Uefa Youth League tie against Sevilla at Prenton Park and three months later in the same competition and venue against Spartak Moscow.

“Stevie was an exceptional manager for me on the pitch and personally,” Brewster says. “He was constantly making sure that I was okay, he was always available if I needed to chat or get things off my chest.

“Every game that it happened, I was playing really well and so he told me it was their way of trying to get to me because they couldn’t match me in terms of ability. He said they were using it to try and put me off my game and so the best way to react to the idiots would be to show just how much better I can be.”

In a football sense, Gerrard fine-tuned Brewster’s anticipation and reading of play. “He would tell me ‘as a midfielder, this is where I’d expect you to be.’ You get to understand the types of runs better like that,” he explains. 

“Having him pass the ball to me during sessions was very helpful, because it directed you on where to finish. And it makes you realise that in the same way, your movement can dictate where you receive the ball so you’re always thinking about it.

“It’s a loss to the academy that he’s now at Rangers, but it’s great for him and I know he’ll do big things. I never did tell him about or show him that picture, you know. It would’ve made for a good laugh.”

Brewster was aided by another Liverpool legend too. Steve McManaman would conduct special exercises at Kirkby on losing defenders early and creating the space to be lethal in front of the sticks. “When I was coming back from injury during pre-season last year, we did a lot of finishing work together,” Brewster says. “He was so good in those sessions and we worked on my timing, my positioning and technique.”

Special praise is reserved for Michael Beale too, who worked with Rhian at Chelsea’s academy before leaving for Liverpool.

“He used to teach me how to strike the ball, he spent a lot of time and effort on me in London,” Brewster says of the man now serving as a first-team coach at Rangers under Gerrard.

“He kept in touch with my dad as well when he left so it was beneficial to see him at Liverpool when I joined the club. He was working with the older age groups, but he would still check in on me.”

All this was factored into the equation when Brewster considered his future this summer with offers from other clubs reaching double digits. Borussia Monchengladbach were threatened with a tapping-up charge and the Reds scrapped a pre-season friendly with the Bundesliga side having taken exception to their approach, but he had plenty other options to ponder.

Most, but not all of them were from Germany, with Juventus also making a check on him.

The “wonderfully skilled boy, real striker, good finisher with fantastic work ethic” – to borrow Jurgen Klopp’s assessment – thought most heavily about how highly the manager rates him as well as how his playing style fuses perfectly with the German’s approach.

At 16, Brewster had wowed the Reds boss during an academy session. He was immediately invited to train with the first team at Melwood, where he scored a hat-trick in a behind‑closed‑doors friendly against Accrington Stanley. 

Brewster was an unused substitute against Crystal Palace in the Premier League last April – he didn’t even own a club suit when Klopp told him he’d be in the match day squad – but that selection was largely due to an injury crisis.

“He’s 17 years old now and already plays U23, that’s a wonderful step for him. There’s no rush, he’s on a very good way, honestly, a very, very good boy,” Klopp noted.

The manager also revealed at the time that Brewster “has a lot of respect in the squad, nobody thought, ‘Who is this?’ They know him because he is an ugly opponent, a difficult-to-play opponent in training sessions.”

The England youth international then featured in an end-of-season friendly in Australia too, with only a foot injury preventing further outings that summer.

Beyond appreciating his brilliance in front of goal, Klopp has great respect for Brewster’s strength of character. “I am really happy he is brave enough, and he needed to be brave, to do what he did because it is such an important thing,” the 51-year-old said about Rhian’s interview on racism. 

At the Football Writers’ Association Awards in May, he repeated this sentiment in a speech that was read out with Brewster in attendance.

“The boss has told me many times that he believes in me, that he rates my game and my attitude,” the player begins as he details his decision to sign a five-year contract with Liverpool. 

“He has said there will be opportunities. I did assess other options, but right now, I think I’m good enough to push for a place around the first team.

“All I need is to get fully fit again and be given the chance to prove him right, prove myself right, contribute in the best way I can and make everyone proud.”

Brewster, who is currently nursing a serious ankle and knee injury picked up while playing for Liverpool’s U23s in January, did not delude himself while contemplating what to do next.

“I know I’m not going to be the number one striker, I’m not stupid,” he says. “We’ve got Bobby [Roberto Firmino], who is world class and is so intelligent in the way he leads the attack. 

“I am constantly learning from him, looking at why he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet.

“I pay attention to the way he times his movements to draw defenders, how he presses and all that, but without losing sight of my own strengths as well. I believe you should always be focused on improving, but always be yourself too – you can’t just copy another player.

“I can play anywhere in the front three and we’ve got Mo [Salah] and Sadio [Mane] in the other two spots, which is pure fire. All three are at the very top of the game, among the best players in the world.

“I’m still young and I know I’m not going be in the starting 11 week in, week out, it’s unreasonable. I just want the minutes to show I can be a really good option for the manager and to help my growth as a Liverpool player. 

“If there’s an injury, a suspension, fatigue or any other issue, I want the club to feel like they can trust me to step in and I want to provide whatever support I can to the team.”

Brewster has arrived for this interview after undertaking another one of his gruelling rehab sessions at Melwood, which happen daily. It has already been six long months of recuperation with two surgeries, first on his right ankle and then to correct meniscus damage in his knee.

“When I got injured, I thought I broke my ankle cause I heard some cracks when I landed,” Brewster, targeting a December return, explains. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, it would be too hard to even describe it. I’ve seen pictures of me receiving oxygen, which looks so scary and serious, but when the mask is on you, you’re in a state of relaxation at that point so the severity doesn’t really register. 

“When you come off it, the realisation and pain hits and to be out for this long is quite devastating. I’ve been with a ball since I was a toddler, so it hurts way more than physically.

“I’ve dedicated myself to the game and so every single day that I can’t play is a tough one. 

“The motivation is to go full tilt at my rehabilitation with the aim of coming back even sharper and mentally stronger too. It is these kind of setbacks that can help shape me.”

Brewster has found a great source of support in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who suffered multiple ligament damage and is unlikely to be involved in 2018-19, as well as the club’s physios.

“Ox’s recovery schedule and mine often means we’re in at the same time. It’s good cause we’ve got each other and can bounce off one another: if he’s having a bad day, I do my best to lift his spirits and vice versa,” Brewster says.

“Even when I’m done with rehab and I’m ready to train again, I’ll still be checking in on him and his progress – that’s my big bro! He’s such a great guy and I wish him a quicker recovery and the best comeback imaginable – he really does deserve success.

“The physios have been so helpful as well. They know it’s a difficult time but they help us keep a positive outlook and they’re top company. I don’t feel like I’m alone at all, which is important.”

It is not just members of Liverpool’s staff and England’s youth set-up that are interested in Brewster’s healing process. At the FWA Awards, Gareth Southgate had a lengthy conversation with him.

“He was asking me how I was doing, what the recovery period looked like, how I was feeling mentally,” Brewster reveals.

“He told me that he’s confident I’ll come back in better shape, that he is waiting to see me play again and it might not be too long till I’m up with them.

“It was nice of him to check on me and to give me that boost. I was really happy that he was appreciated for picking a young squad and doing so well at the World Cup.”

Brewster, refreshed after a short holiday in Cancun with his mum and sister, wants to attack his rehab with greater vigour and continue where he left off.

“My story hasn’t even properly started yet, I’m just counting down now. I’ll be waiting to take any and every opportunity when I’m ready.”

Of that, there are no doubts – pure gold doesn’t tarnish.