Ben Doak: Liverpool's teenage star primed to join Salah, Diaz and co. in Klopp's squad
For a player who has never started a professional club game, and whose senior experience amounts to around 80 minutes of football, it's fair to say that Ben Doak is building himself quite a reputation.
He only turned 17 in November, but the young winger has already played for the first-team at both Celtic and Liverpool, and has represented (and scored for) Scotland at Under-21 level.
Talented and tenacious, Doak could well be in line to make his full Liverpool debut on Tuesday, with Jurgen Klopp likely to ring the changes for the Reds' FA Cup third-round replay at Wolves. Doak, who has impressed across four recent substitute appearances, may represent the kind of freshness and fearlessness Klopp's struggling side is searching for.
But even if he doesn't get the nod at Molineux, it won't be long before his time does arrive. He is already a regular with Klopp's senior squad at the AXA Training Centre, having shone for Liverpool's U18, U19 and U21 sides. Steve Clarke, the Scotland boss, has been monitoring his progress closely, with a senior international cap thought to be not too far away.
So far, so good then, for this precocious talent. And here, NXGN takes closer look at the Reds' latest boy wonder...
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Where it all began
Doak was born in Ayrshire town of Dalry, around 25 miles south west of Glasgow. His grandfather, Martin, played professionally for Morton, and it was clear from an early age that young Ben had inherited the football gene.
He joined local club Dalry Thistle after a short spell at Kilbirnie, and would become the star of a team containing boys almost two years his senior. "He was like a wee rocket," his former coach, Evan Fairns, told The Athletic last year. Fairns' two sons, Cameron and Derren, played in the same team, but Doak was its shining star. "He was fearless, and a delight to coach," Fairns added.
Doak was eight years old when he was spotted by Ayr United, whose scout, Raymond Pattison, had made the half-hour drive from Kilmarnock on the recommendation of a friend. "The first time I saw him, I could see there was something special there," Pattison said. "I was like 'wow'."
His time at Ayr was short-lived, Celtic swooping in to sign the forward who was, in Pattison's words, "scoring against everyone."
In Glasgow, he progressed steadily through the youth ranks, and followed in the footsteps of the likes of Kieran Tierney by graduating from the club's St Ninian's school programme, which is designed to allow academy prospects to train as frequently as possible while simultaneously picking up an academic education, in 2021.
"That's a boy with pace, and a lad you couldn't describe as shy!" coach Martin Miller recalled, and there is pride that just a week after leaving St Ninians, Doak was on the bench for Celtic's first-team for a league game away at St Johnstone. He didn't get on, but it would not be long before fans got a glimpse of the teenage tyro.
The big break
Doak had already attracted a bit of attention with a Man-of-the-Match performance on his debut for Scotland's U17 side against Wales at Stirling Albion's Forthbank Stadium in September 2021. Then only 15, he scored a looping, back-post header that day, and a little over three months later, he was on the bench for Celtic's first-team up at St Johnstone.
His professional debut arrived in January 2022, when he replaced Reo Hatate in a must-win league game at home to Dundee United. The score was goalless when Doak was introduced, midway through the second half, but the youngster impressed as Liel Abada grabbed a last-minute winner.
Four days later, Doak came off the bench for Celtic again, this time in a 3-0 win over Old Firm rivals Rangers. He arrived in the 88th minute, with the game well and truly won, but made sure he left a mark on proceedings by clattering into Fashion Sakala and earning a yellow card, much to the delight of the home supporters.
That cameo would prove to be his last for Celtic, with Liverpool convincing him to swap Glasgow for Merseyside last summer, in a deal which could end up costing the Reds around £600,000 ($732,000).
It took a good pitch to land him. Doak had received offers from a host of clubs, most notably Leeds United, but backed himself to make the grade at Anfield. Speak to those who know him, or who have encountered him on his journey so far, and they'll tell you that's what he's always done; backed himself.
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How it's going
Doak arrived at Liverpool carrying injuries, a series of back, groin and ankle issues which medics believed were linked to growth, and so was eased into action with Marc Bridge-Wilkinson's U18 side during pre-season.
But it wasn't long before he was making his presence felt. His debut came in a 3-2 friendly win away to Cardiff in July, and a week later he netted his first goal as Leicester were battered 6-1 at Kirkby.
Once the season proper got underway, Doak continued his fine form. He scored twice in Liverpool's first U18 Premier League game, a 6-2 thrashing of Middlesbrough, and again in a narrow defeat to Leeds the following week.
By September, he had been drafted into the U19s for their UEFA Youth League campaign, and he opened his account in that competition with a goal and an assist as Napoli were beaten 2-1 in Italy.
A standout moment came in October, when he scored a remarkable winner away at Rangers, retrieving the ball near the corner flag before dribbling his way past four opponents into the penalty area and finishing with the outside of his right foot. Scores of friends and family were in Partick Thistle's Firhill Stadium to witness it, and Doak celebrated accordingly, although he chose, wisely, not to attend that evening's Champions League clash at Ibrox, on account of his Celtic connections.
Doak finished with four goals from six Youth League appearances, and continued to score and assist regularly for the U18s. He also netted for Barry Lewtas' U21 side against League One outfit Accrington Stanley in the Papa John's Trophy in October, and when the Reds faced Derby County in the third round of the Carabao Cup in early November, he was drafted into Klopp's senior squad.
He performed well, thrilling fans with a positive, nerveless display after replacing Fabio Carvalho 16 minutes from the end of a goalless draw (Liverpool won on penalties), and with the domestic season breaking soon after for the World Cup, he joined the Reds first-team on their 10-day training camp in Dubai in December, catching the eye by setting up a goal for Darwin Nunez in a friendly win over AC Milan.
Since the resumption of club football, Doak has remained in and around Liverpool's first team. A lively cameo off the bench at Aston Villa on Boxing Day, in which he tormented the former Everton left-back Lucas Digne, had Klopp smiling. "That's Ben!" he told his post-match press conference, and the youngster was similarly impressive in a six-minute run out against Wolves at Anfield in the FA Cup, before being handed a 22-minute appearance in the league defeat to Brighton.
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There is no doubting Doak's No.1 attribute; his ability to run with the ball and beat players.
He is something of a throwback, in that he is a right-footer who prefers to play on the right, going past defenders on the outside and getting to the byline or into the penalty area.
He is ultra-direct, in that regard, always looking to play forwards, and happy to mix it physically when necessary. He bumped Digne to the ground as they contested a loose ball during that Villa game on Boxing Day, and those that have worked with him say he is fearless, a respecter of no full-back's size or reputation.
His finishing is good, off either foot but mainly the right, and his acceleration over short distances enables him to zoom away from opponents, who inevitably resort to fouling him as games go on.
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Room for improvement
What will be intriguing is just how Liverpool choose to develop him. At present, of course, Mohamed Salah plays in Doak's favoured position on the right flank, and it is fair to say the Egyptian, a left-footer who starts wide but loves to arrive into goalscoring positions centrally, is a very different kind of player.
Doak, clearly, is too good for U18s football, and he looks like he has the measure of the U21s too, but can he switch up his game against stronger, more wily defenders at senior level? Can he play one and two-touch combination football, instead of constantly running at defenders? Can he do what Salah has done, and become a prolific goalscorer, or learn to play on the left flank, coming inside the pitch more?
Those are questions to be answered, for sure, but the good news is he has plenty of time to answer them. And so far, so very, very good.
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The next... Luis Diaz?
It is hard to recall too many young players with Doak's style bursting onto the scene in England over the past few years.
The likes of Aaron Lennon, Jesus Navas and Theo Walcott spring to mind from a bygone era, right footers who stayed wide and zipped past full-backs, but Doak's physicality marks him as different even to those players.
There is something of the Wayne Rooney in terms of how developed he is, and how aggressive he is willing to be, at such a young age. "Man strength," one Liverpool academy coach calls it, and there are similarities with a current Reds first-teamer, Luis Diaz, in the way Doak is prepared to clash with defenders, take his knocks, pick himself up and go again.
Like Diaz, he has a beautiful first-touch, an eye for goal and excellent dribbling skills, though the Colombian's career has been forged on the left wing rather than the right.
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What comes next?
It is already clear that Doak has played his way into Klopp's thoughts. There were rumours prior to Christmas that clubs, Nottingham Forest among them, were looking to sign the teenager on loan this month, but they were dismissed firmly by Liverpool, and given the injuries to the likes of Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino, it is easy to see him getting opportunities at Anfield in the coming weeks.
"Can you imagine he was a signing?!" assistant manager Pep Lijnders marvelled recently. "He’s very quick but if you are very quick and technical that makes a really dangerous player.
“And he learns as well, really quick. That’s really nice to see because sometimes you can be really quick, really good with your feet, but you don’t learn. I like that combination of speed, mentality and technique – and Ben has all three.”
At 17, the world seems to be Doak's oyster. "His potential is enormous," says Scotland U21s coach Scot Gemmill. "But I would also add there are many hurdles to get over for him and he has to keep pushing, and his mentality and attitude have to be correct. Right now it is but he has to continue and that’s the challenge."
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