1708990247 The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

The Liverpool kids who won the cup – with a little help from Virgil van Dijk

As he sat in the victorious Wembley dressing room with a winner's medal around his neck and Dua Lipa's “One Kiss” blaring from the system, a smile crept across Virgil van Dijk's face.

“They thought I was done,” said Liverpool’s captain ironically.

It was a clear nod to the criticism he received last season as Jurgen Klopp's tenure at Anfield spiraled worryingly out of hand. Since then, no one has contributed more to the club's exciting resurgence than Van Dijk.

How he has embraced taking on greater responsibility since being handed the armband following the departure of Jordan Henderson last summer. How he acts at the peak of his powers again.

The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

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

This was the story of the master and his apprentices who helped Liverpool complete the first leg of a potential quadruple during Klopp's emotional farewell tour.

The circumstances were remarkable. They had no right to win that Carabao Cup final. When Ryan Gravenberch left on a stretcher midway through the first half after a foul by Moises Caicedo, Klopp was without a dozen members of his senior team due to injury.

As grueling competition took its toll, the manager turned to the rookies behind him on the bench. Teenagers Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns made just 15 first-team appearances between them.

Jarell Quansah, a 21-year veteran in comparison, followed in overtime. Conor Bradley had previously brought himself to his knees before being substituted. Five young talents on the biggest stage against Chelsea's expensively assembled team. Common sense dictated that Liverpool would ultimately be found wanting.

But instead of withering, they stood tall. Courage, composure and resilience were in abundance. Klopp's trust has been repaid.

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

1708990232 359 The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

Klopp looks at the scene after the game at Wembley Stadium (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 dangers that came his way and inspired those around him. Behind the captain was the outstanding Caoimhin Kelleher; At the top was the tireless Wataru Endo.

How fitting that Van Dijk, who had previously missed a header, made the decisive contribution when he nodded Kostas Tsimikas' corner into extra time, sparking wild celebrations. With his legs heavy from fatigue, he sat down at the feet of the Greek left-back before being mobbed by his teammates.

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

As they walked up the Wembley stairs, Van Dijk insisted that Klopp should lift the trophy with him, a gesture that meant a lot to the manager. “I would have preferred him to do it alone, but he really wanted me to lend a hand and I like that,” said Klopp. “It is a very special moment for Virg. I know how much he loves the club and the role.”

During the rousing rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', youngsters' faces were wide-eyed as players and staff linked arms in front of a cheering Liverpool Stadium. The magnitude of what they had contributed to only slowly dawned on them as they walked down the tunnel and were reunited with their families in the players' lounge.

Liverpool-born Danns, 18, was at the helm at Wembley, having made only a brief senior debut against Luton Town four days earlier.

The son of former Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Neil Danns, he is the academy's top goalscorer with 21 goals so far this season and has been 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 disease after rapidly growing from 5 ft 2 in (157 cm) to 6 ft, but he has progressed impressively over the course of this season and has grown physically.

1708990235 118 The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

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

McConnell, 19, initially arrived from Sunderland as an attacking midfielder at the age of 15, but Klopp and Pep Lijnders taught him the leadership role last pre-season after Fabinho and Henderson moved to Saudi Arabia.

He proved to be a quick learner and his leadership qualities were recognized when coach Barry Lewtas gave him the captaincy of the U21 national team.

Signed from Newcastle United in 2021, Clark was the subject of numerous loan interest from Football League clubs in January, but those approaches were rebuffed as Liverpool felt they had to keep him on board as cover. Given the resulting injuries, it was a smart move for everyone involved.

The son of former Newcastle United midfielder Lee Clark has made seven of his nine appearances for Liverpool FC's senior team since the turn of the year and each time he has shone with his performance on and off the ball.

1708990237 313 The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

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

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

“Can you write football stories that no one will forget? If you find the same story about academy players playing against a top team and still winning, then I’ve never heard of it.”

Quansah and Bradley are better known than the other three due to their greater presence in the first team, but it is worth remembering how far they have come in such a short space of time. A year ago they were on loan in the third division to Bristol Rovers and Bolton respectively.

Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold's injuries opened the door for them at Liverpool this season, and they got straight through them. Quansah has been with Liverpool since he was five years old, while Bradley was nine when he joined Liverpool's Northern Ireland development center. These were long-term projects for Academy Director Alex Inglethorpe and his staff.

The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

“I don’t think I can really put it into words,” Bradley said, beaming. “I've been supporting this club since I was about five years old and to win a trophy with them at Wembley… I'm just thrilled.

“I think it all comes from the gaffer: the trust he has in us young people. It makes it much easier to get into the first team when the U21 and U18 players all play the same way. He is a very special manager to work under. I just have to cherish every moment I spend with him because obviously he’s leaving in the summer.”

1708990241 850 The Liverpool kids who won the cup with a

Harvey Elliott, himself only 20, and Klopp with the trophy (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

The production line that the talent Klopp will leave 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 faith and freedom. When everyone showed up for the pre-game meal you could see all the good players we were missing. Kudos to the young people – you could see their excitement when they realized they would get a chance.

“They brought fresh legs and a 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 also belonged to a different class. We gave everything we had and in the end we won winners’ medals.”

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