Layton Stewart: Roberto Firmino's favourite Liverpool academy star

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Layton Stewart Liverpool 2022-23
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The 20-year-old striker made his senior debut for Jurgen Klopp's side in November, and has been in prolific form for the Under-21s this season

The timing is perfect, almost enough to draw suspicions of a set-up. Just as Layton Stewart is explaining his knack of scoring goals, and how he has previously been compared to the likes of Michael Owen and Fernando Torres during his Liverpool academy career, along comes another Reds striking great.

Robbie Fowler, sadly, declines GOAL’s invitation to join the poacher’s chat - he has a podcast to record - but his parting words say plenty about how Stewart is perceived within Liverpool.

“He doesn’t need my advice,” Fowler grins. “He’s doing well enough on his own…”

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It’s a fair point, too. With 18 goals from only 20 appearances this season, Stewart is the academy’s leading scorer, and in November the 20-year-old, who grew up just a couple of miles from the AXA Training Centre, fulfilled a lifelong dream by making his debut for the Reds’ first-team.

Whatever the personable Scouser goes on to achieve, few feelings will top that, walking out at Anfield in front of 52,000 and leading the line for Jurgen Klopp’s side in a Carabao Cup tie against Derby County.

“Hard to describe,” he smiles, although in fairness to him, as with most things he does, he ends up having a pretty good go.

  1. The early days
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    The early days

    Stewart grew up in Stockbridge Village, a short drive from Liverpool’s new Kirkby training ground and even closer to their former base at Melwood.

    He was, in his own words, “always a mad red” but like Fowler, who famously grew up an Evertonian, he too had a brief flirtation with the city’s other club. “I actually played for Everton first,” he says, “but when I was seven I chose Liverpool, and that was that.”

    Stewart’s group at Kirkby was a good one, featuring a host of players who are still with the club to this day. 

    “There was Tyler Morton, Maxi Woltman, Dom Corness, Tom Hill, James Norris came a bit later too,” he says. “We all went to school together at Rainhill, and we’re all still close now of course.”

  2. The rise
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    The rise

    A natural goalscorer and a fiery, outgoing character, by the time he was 16, Stewart was being talked about as a potential first-teamer at Liverpool. 

    “Do you want a name to look out for?” Alex Inglethorpe, the Reds’ academy director, once asked GOAL at the end of an interview. “Layton Stewart. He can be anything he wants to be.”

    In December 2019, Stewart was on the bench as, with Klopp’s first-team squad in Qatar for the Club World Cup, Liverpool were forced to select a virtual youth team for their Carabao Cup quarter-final at Aston Villa. Hill and Norris both played that night, as Neil Critchley’s side acquitted themselves well, but lost 5-0 to a Villa side featuring the likes of Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz and current Celtic star Jota.

    An ankle injury denied him the chance to feature when, for different reasons, Liverpool again fielded a youth side for their FA Cup fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury at Anfield in February 2020, but he signed his first professional contract soon after, and at the end of that season was rewarded for his progress with a new, long-term deal.

  3. The agony
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    The agony

    Stewart remembers the day it all changed for him. It was March 2021, and he was playing for Barry Lewtas’ Under-23s team in a Premier League 2 match against West Ham at Kirkby.

    In the second half, he went to chase a ball over the top, collided with a Hammers defender and “felt something go” in his knee.

    “I heard a horrible noise, so I knew I’d done something bad,” he says now, more than two years on. “I didn’t know at first where the pain was coming from. But then I realised it was my knee and I was like ‘oh no, what have I done?’

    “My knee actually locked into a bent position. The physios were asking me to straighten it and I just couldn’t.”

    The initial diagnosis was that Stewart had torn the meniscus in his right knee, a bad enough injury in itself. A second scan, however, would bring even worse news.

    “It turned out I’d done everything I could have done in my knee,” Stewart says, ruefully. “I’d done the meniscus, the medial collateral ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament too.”

  4. The comeback

    The comeback

    Still only 18, and with his progress firmly checked, Stewart set about getting his head around the recovery process.

    “My mindset initially was ‘I’m going to smash it and be back ASAP’,” he says. “But the reality is much more difficult than you could imagine. 

    “I was in a bit of a mad place, because I’d been doing so well and then this had happened. It set me right back.

    “And while I was doing my rehab, I was seeing a lot of lads getting their debuts. I was buzzing for them, don’t get me wrong, but of course there’s a part of you that thinks ‘that could have been me’ and that gets you down.”

    Stewart credits Liverpool’s physios, Tony Jones, Paul Kelly and Scott McAuley, as well as Lewtas, with keeping him focused and away from the darker thoughts which can engulf an injured player, and admits that Hill, who suffered a similarly serious knee injury in August 2020, “must have been sick to death of the calls and texts” he received from his pal.

    There was also, Stewart says, some welcome support from some of the Reds’ senior professionals.

    “Ox [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain] was a big help,” he says. “He had the same injury, and when he found out what I’d done he came over and was always talking to me, making sure I was alright and making sure I was doing my work. Joe Gomez was the same, really good. I’ll never forget that, because it meant a lot to a young player.”

  5. The debut
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    The debut

    Stewart would be out of action for just over 12 months, but having used the back-end of the 2021-22 campaign to ease himself back into the fold, he has been able to return to something like his best form at U21 level this season.

    His performances were good enough to earn him call-ups to train with Liverpool’s senior squad in the autumn, and when Klopp needed to put together a team for the Carabao Cup third-round clash with Derby on November 1, it was Stewart who got the nod to start as the Reds’ No.9.

    “The day before the game, we did a shape session, and I was in the starting XI,” he remembers, smiling. “Then we had a meeting and Jurgen named the starting team. I was in.

    “My body sort of got this mad feeling, I can’t even describe it. I rang my parents and my mum started crying down the phone, which made me a bit emotional too. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted in my life, to play for Liverpool’s first team at Anfield.

    “Stepping out, wow. When 'You’ll Never Walk Alone' came on, my body was in a state of shock I think! You don’t realise how big the stadium is until you’ve stood on that pitch and looked around at the stands when they’re full. When you’re on that pitch, it feels massive.”

    In a much-changed team, Stewart acquitted himself well, although he regrets snatching at a first-half chance on his left foot at the Anfield Road end.

    “A few times I’ve replayed that!” he says “I was a bit hard on myself afterwards, because when I watched it back you can see it bobbled just before it got to me. I was gutted, to be fair, but on another day I put it away.”

    He lasted 66 minutes before being replaced by Darwin Nunez, as Liverpool eventually won on penalties after a 0-0 draw. “A night I’ll never forget as long as I live,” he says.

  6. The Firmino friendship

    The Firmino friendship

    A few weeks after that Derby game, Stewart was selected for the first-team’s mid-season training camp in Dubai.

    There, he was able to watch closely the likes of Mohamed Salah and James Milner, and to strike up an unlikely bromance with another of his striking idols, Roberto Firmino.

    “They’re the main players I watch, week in and week out,” he says. “To be involved with them, doing drills and forward exercises, shooting and things like that, it can only benefit me

    “I speak to Bobby a lot, actually. I absolutely love him. He messages me on Instagram after a game saying ‘well done’ and things like that, which means a lot to a young player. I had a photo shoot recently and he was messaging after it. 

    “We got on well over in Dubai. We were doing a lot of pressing drills, and he’s the king of it really, isn’t he, so I was always asking him for little tips and watching how he did it. 

    “He’s changed the way a Liverpool No.9 plays, and that’s something every young striker has to be aware of now. It’s not just about the glory, scoring goals, you have to do the other side of the game as well. He’s been the best in the business at it for years.”

  7. The future
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    The future

    The big question, of course, is what comes next? Stewart picked up a thigh injury during that Dubai camp which kept him out for the best part of two months, but has returned to action with the U21s and has five goals in his last seven matches.

    The first-team, however, still looks some way off, a fact he readily accepts.

    “I’m realistic,” he says. “I know how hard it is to get into Liverpool’s team. I’ll do everything I can to impress.

    “The manager always gives the younger lads hope that you’ll get a chance to go and train with the first team and if you impress then you’ll stick around. Look at Stefan [Bajcetic], he’s a huge inspiration for all of us. He went up, did well and stayed there. Same with Tyler last year, and now he’s gone and smashed it on loan at Blackburn and got 40-50 senior games under his belt.

    “Hopefully I’ll get a look in pre-season with the first team, and then I imagine the main aim will be to try and go on loan, depending on what happens. If the club wants me to stay then I’ll stay, of course, but probably most likely is a loan.”

    Wherever he ends up, one thing is sure; someone is going to benefit from Stewart’s hunger, desire and eye for goal.