Trent Alexander-Arnold's ultimate ambition will make for pleasant reading for Liverpool fans
It was that tricky part of the interview, the moment when the interviewee is asked about his achievements to date and his hopes for the future in the knowledge that he has to strike a balance between humility and ambition.
Trent Alexander-Arnold dwelled on the question briefly but long enough to demonstrate that he had considered it before offering a response. “I have achieved goals, but the dream is to captain Liverpool. I have not achieved that yet,” he says. “There will be goals to achieve along the way, but until I captain Liverpool I will not be satisfied.”
A declaration of intent has been stated but it is neither arrogant nor delusional, it is a mature outlining of an objective that fuels a teenager of precocious talent whom seasoned observers at Liverpool believe has both the ability and the character to achieve his goal. If his forthright delivery is reminiscent of Steven Gerrard, particularly as it is laced with a Scouse lilt, that is probably not coincidental as the youngster who dreams of captaining Liverpool is being mentored by the player who, more than any other, he longs to emulate.
“It goes back to Steven Gerrard, he was my idol,” Alexander-Arnold explains. “To see him week in, week out wearing that armband. I always wanted to be like him so wearing that armband would mean a lot to me.”
At the age of 18, Alexander-Arnold already speaks like a Liverpool player. Reverential at the right moments, humble when the situation demands it and fiercely driven at all times, his is an authentic local voice, the likes of which has been conspicuous at Anfield since the playing days of Gerrard and Jamie Carragher came to an end and injuries forced Jonathan Flanagan to attempt to revive his career at Burnley.
He is also, regardless of Jurgen Klopp’s initial understandable attempts to manage the expectations that inevitably surround him, the most talented Liverpool-born player to emerge from the club’s Academy since Gerrard and Carragher.
Better placed than most to recognise the type of potential that he once had, Gerrard describes his protégé as “a beauty” having previously singled him out as a first team player of the future in his autobiography.
Pep Ljinders, who has coached Trent-Arnold at both youth and first team levels believes him to be “one of the most all-round talents in Europe.” Now that he is established on the first team scene even Klopp has been prepared to publicly acknowledge his ability. “Trent is a wonderful player,” the Liverpool manager said. “We are really happy to have him here.”
The feeling at Liverpool, one that has bubbled away behind the scenes for a number of years, is that they won the lottery when Alexander-Arnold joined them. That idea grows stronger when the random way that he first came to their attention is taken into account.
“It was a tournament, a summer camp. A lot of lads from different schools got invited up there. There was only a certain amount of specific invites for my age group. It was my class, so not everyone could go but luckily enough I got drawn out of the hat. Once I went up there, one of the coaches asked my mum (Diane) if I could start going up on a regular basis and start training and playing games. That was pre-Academy. There were no contracts involved at the age. I was only six but I always knew that I wanted to play for Liverpool, it was never a case of wanting to go to another club.”
Those who were involved at Liverpool’s Academy at the time knew that they had seen something special, hence the eagerness to convince the remarkably athletic kid from St Matthew’s School in Clubmoor that he should come under their wing.
Tellingly, even at an early age Alexander-Arnold recognised his own potential and was determined to give himself the best possible chance of fulfilling it, hence the reason why he left St Matthew’s at the age of ten in order to prioritise football and his wish to enjoy as much coaching time as possible at Liverpool’s Academy in Kirkby.
“I left there in year six and went to a school in Crosby for a couple of years. We decided that the way they were going to structure it wasn’t going to help me with football. They wouldn’t let me do day release to train so I decided to move to Rainhill, the Liverpool school. I went there when I was 13.”
That he knows his own mind is not in any doubt but that trait, the one that fuels his ambitions to this day, could also have taken him away from Liverpool and into the arms of Everton when he was nine-years-old. Only the combination of his own sense of belonging and the determination of the Academy scouting staff, led by Ian Barrigan, not to allow his talent to slip away, prevented Alexander-Arnold from crossing the park but the danger of that happening was real.
“I did a couple of sessions (at Everton). “There was a time when I was young when I wasn’t really enjoying Liverpool. I wanted to see if it was different at other clubs. As a really young lad, all I wanted to do was play games rather than train. With Liverpool it was more training than games, so I just wanted to play as much as I could. So I tried Everton but they were the same so I thought ‘I’d rather be doing this at Liverpool.’”
Everton’s loss was Liverpool’s gain but in truth, his allegiances to the red half of the city were always going to make it difficult for him to cross the divide. Growing up in the West Derby district of the city, Alexander-Arnold was drawn to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground like a magnet, watching his heroes train on the pitch through cracks on the wall along with a host of other star-struck children.
That he now spends his days improving himself at the same venue with kids standing on wheelie bins and car rooves in the hope of catching sight of him is not lost on the England under-19 international, particularly as he is now being given a taste of the adulation that he once afforded to others.
“I had a lot of idols growing up like Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Gerrard, Carragher, all of them,” he admits. “I really looked up to them. Obviously just living around the corner, it was an opportunity to see them. I’d never really seen them close up so coming down gave me an opportunity to see them that way. I just used to try and look in the cars as they went past. I used to squint through the cracks in the wall and watch them train.
“Now when I go out I am getting recognised and you feel that people know who you are when you walk into a restaurant or something. But I don’t think it has changed me. I haven’t gone big-headed or anything like that. It is about keeping your friends and family around you. They will either let you get big headed and let it all go to your head or they will try and keep you humble, keep your feet on the floor, and I think that is really important. The people around me have done that. They have kept my feet on the floor. They have told me that I have got a long way to go before I make it. I’m still living at home with all my family.
“There was one thing, though. I saw a lad wearing my shirt. That was when it kicked in fully. It was in town. I just remember seeing it and I was taken aback. I never thought I could mean that much to someone. I’m just a lad playing for Liverpool trying to achieve his dream so to see a lad with my name on his shirt – when I grew up having the names of other players on my shirt – it meant a lot.”
Despite his obvious maturity, Alexander-Arnold is probably too young to fully appreciate the local longing for Liverpool to produce another homegrown talent to follow in the footsteps of Carragher, Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, John Aldridge, Sammy Lee, Phil Thompson, Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan and all those who have been seen as fans’ representatives on the pitch. He does recognise that such a desire exists, though, and he believes that so too does the opportunity for him to be the one fulfils that role, particularly with the support network that he has built up around him.
“I don’t feel added pressure or any different because every player has to come through an Academy at every club they are at,” he says,
“There has not really been a player coming through at Liverpool in a while, but I don’t see it as pressure. I just want to do it. There is a pathway and as long as I stay on the straight and narrow of that pathway – don’t get led astray – I have a chance.
“But I still have it all to do. I think until I am playing every game all season for a couple of seasons I am always going to be striving for better. You can never be comfortable because there is either someone to compete with or someone coming up to take your position. That’s always how it is going to be in football, someone trying to get your shirt. That’s how to look at it. You can never relax or be too complacent. Someone will try to get the shirt off you.
“I know that I’m far from making it and I’m far from reaching my full potential. I think that’s the best way of seeing it, especially with your friends and family backing that up by always being there for you. So I know I always have to work hard off the pitch, making sure I get the right food is also important because friends who aren’t in your position might want to go for a quick McDonald’s or something like that and influence you in a bad way but if you’ve got the right friends around you who understand you have to make sacrifices that’s really important.”
The mixed messages that almost inevitably accompany a young player's early days in the first team of a leading club have been writ large in Alexander-Arnold’s Liverpool journey to date.
The high of a critically acclaimed display in his full debut away to Manchester United was followed by the low of being withdrawn at half-time against Stoke City recently along with Ben Woodburn. On both occasions, Liverpool players past and present demonstrated their support, including Rob Jones who famously marked Ryan Giggs on his Liverpool debut at Old Trafford and now mentors at the club’s Academy. With each individual that Alexander-Arnold names it becomes increasingly clear that a support network has been established around him.
On both occasions, Liverpool players past and present demonstrated their support, including Rob Jones who famously marked Ryan Giggs on his Liverpool debut at Old Trafford and now mentors at the club’s Academy. With each individual that Alexander-Arnold names it becomes increasingly clear that a support network has been established around him.
“I understood the decision to take me off at Stoke, I never questioned why the manager did it,” he says. “It was for the good of the team and I always understand that. As long as the team gets three points I’ll never be too disappointed. Obviously, I went away a little bit disappointed because I knew I could have done better in that first half and maybe if I had I might have stayed on but I was still happy with the win.
“We had a day off the following day and Ben and myself both got a text off Hendo and he just said it happens, he knows that we’re good enough and that the next time we got a chance to make sure we take it. That really helped us because we were a bit disappointed and it lifted us to have the captain saying that and letting us know that he believes in us. It gave us that little bit of faith in ourselves and he also told us to make sure we were at it straight away in training and we were.
“Rob text me after the United game. He didn’t text me beforehand because it was a little bit of a surprise and not a lot of people knew, probably just family and a couple of close friends. He text me and said he was really impressed and having that support from a player who’s been in my position, as in right back, was really good. Again, it was another case of someone acting as a mentor to me.
“I was surprised and shocked (when I got picked). I just tried to accept it and tried to focus and not let it get too much for me. I knew I had to focus on my performance and not let it get too much for me because I couldn’t afford to be a little bit shell-shocked or nervous. I just had to go out and do the best that I could because I knew it would be a hostile atmosphere, which is what you expect when you go to Old Trafford no matter what age you are or where you are in the league, it’s always going to be that great rivalry between the two clubs. I just knew I had to do my best and if I did that I’d come away happy.”
Last month, having made the breakthrough and established himself as a squad player who is expected to become a fully fledged first team player sooner rather than later, Alexander-Arnold sought the counsel of two of the figures who have been particularly prominent during the most recent stages of his development.
Along with Gerrard, the right back sat down with Academy director Alex Inglethorpe to take stock of how far he has come but also how far he still has to go to get to where he wants to be. Not everything he heard was positive, but it was all constructive and geared towards helping him to make the necessary improvements to his game that will take him to the next level.
“Steven’s been really helpful,” he says. “I went up to the Academy a couple of weeks ago and had a sit down with Steven and Alex Inglethorpe to talk about the progress I’ve been making and what I still need to work on, everything like that. He’s told me that he’s always there for me if I ever need to question something because he’s been in my position and it really helps me to have a mentor within the club. Steven’s definitely that because he’s my idol and it meant a lot to me for him to say that he’s always there for me. If I ever do need the support I’ll definitely go to him.
“Alex has overseen most training sessions and games and been there to tell me what I have done well and done wrong. Some of the time it has not always been the feedback you want, but it is always to help. Constructive criticism from him helps and when I get a well done from him I know it must be thoroughly deserved because he does not throw them around. I respect his word. I will always ask him for advice and respect his opinion. He will tell me the truth so I will always ask him how I played and how he thinks I can get better.”
The learning curve remains tough and one of the most difficult lessons Alexander-Arnold has had to deal with came in February when he was caught up in a confrontation during an under-23s fixture that could have led to his dismissal.
The incident flared during Liverpool’s 6-2 win over Huddersfield Town when he retaliated following a challenge by Jamie Spencer who was sent off and although Alexander-Arnold had appeared to exchange punches with the Huddersfield player he escaped with a booking. While Gerrard, Inglethorpe and Klopp have all encouraged the defender to use his physicality they want him to do so only within the confines of the laws of the game and a reminder followed.
“Yes, there is a line,” he admitted. “If it was a Premier League game it might have been different. I spoke to Alex about it. I was lucky it was an under-23 game so I could learn from it and make sure it does not happen again. If I’d been sent off it would have been a three-game ban and an unnecessary loss for the team. It’s a good thing as long as you learn from it.”
From being tipped to stardom to being hauled off early and from being involved in a melee to seeing fans wearing shirts carrying his name, Alexander-Arnold’s first season in Liverpool’s first team has been as eventful as it has been educational. His long-term ambition of becoming Liverpool captain remains some way off but his short term aim of winning and holding down a regular starting place is now within reach. When that objective is achieved, as it surely will be, his hopes of emulating Gerrard will also rise, not that he needs any encouragement on that front.