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Jayden Danns’ spectacular rise as Everton left unhappy and Liverpool starlet’s dad sends emotional message

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Jayden Danns made his Liverpool first team debut in the 4-1 win over Luton and helped set up Harvey Elliott’s final goal.

It was while working for Bolton Wanderers in 2015 where I first crossed paths with Liverpool’s latest debutant – Jayden Danns.

His father, Neil, had signed permanently for Bolton a month before my own arrival at the club following a successful year on loan from Leicester City. When producing an early feature interview with the Liverpool-born midfielder, I first became aware that Danns’ talents were not limited to the pitch.

He is a talented musician having inherited such skills from his own father, Neil Sr, who was a backing singer on the UK’s entry in the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest – as well as a European title-winning skateboarder. Neil has passed on such skills to his daughter, Hayla, who represented the UK in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest last year.

As is the case when working full-time behind the scenes at any club, you do cross paths with the players’ families. I vaguely remember Jayden, who could have only been eight at the time, excitedly running around in the tunnel on matchdays and going out to kick a ball on the pitch long after the final whistle. He’d also accompany his father around the pitch on those traditional end of season lap of honours.

By this point, he had just signed for Liverpool’s academy. Still, little did I know that 10 years on from first crossing paths with Neil, I’d actually start reporting on his son playing for the Reds. And having seen him already score a number of goals at academy level this season and last, Danns junior now has a first team appearance under his belt.

While I find that somewhat surreal – and I’m very much not alone on that score as will soon become clear! – spare a thought for Jay Spearing. The 35-year-old and Neil were team-mates for three years at Bolton, making 64 appearances together. Having returned to the Reds as an academy player-coach in the summer of 2022, Spearing has found himself coaching Jayden with the Under-18s, and now playing alongside him as an overage player for the Under-21s.

Danns’ rise this season has been spectacular, with the prolific striker scoring 21 goals at academy level to catch Jurgen Klopp’s eye in the first place. Yet the majority of them have come with the Under-18s.

It is only since the turn of the year that he has stepped up to become a regular starter for the Under-21s, only making his Premier League 2 debut on January 13. Inevitably, he scored in a 4-2 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, with his record in PL2 now standing at two goals and two assists from four appearances.

Yet just 39 days on from that maiden appearance, he found himself handed his senior debut as a substitute in Wednesday night’s 4-1 victory over Luton. Admittedly, such an outing would perhaps not have come so soon if not for a severe Liverpool injury crisis, but Danns certainly made his presence felt in his first Premier League appearance.

Introduced in the 89th minute in place of Luis Diaz, he made his presence felt immediately by winning possession in midfield. Moments later, he’d claim an assist of sorts, pouncing on a loose ball after dropping deep, turning well and threading it through to Cody Gakpo. While a last-gasp sliding tackle denied the Dutchman a shot when through on goal, Harvey Elliott was on hand to hammer home the follow-up.

“Where to start,” father Neil posted on Instagram after the game. “Tonight was one of the proudest nights of my life. To see you achieve the first steps of your dreams fills my heart with pride.

“To watch you work and work for your goals is a privilege to be part of. Proud of you son, keep pushing. Love you.”

In the comments, former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant shared how the ‘penny dropped’ regarding the family connection following Danns’ introduction. Given that Luton boss Rob Edwards joked that he had played against Neil to both Klopp and the young striker after the final whistle, such exchanges will not be rare.

Meanwhile, boxer Tony Bellew, who is best friends with Neil, put aside his Everton allegiances to pay tribute to Liverpool’s latest debutant after the final whistle.

“Truly amazing! This young man has worked so hard and dedicated his whole life to football!” he wrote on social media. “To see him make his premier league debut makes me so happy and proud of him! Keep shining J, you’re doing great young king.”

Jayden has been surrounded by professional sportsmen and high achievers his whole life. Many already knew the name, but he is continuing to make it in his own right, to the delight of so many watching on.

While a big, pacey, powerful striker at academy level – traits that make him a defender’s nightmare – dropping deep and picking out key passes is not foreign to Danns either. He did just that behind Lewis Koumas for Liverpool Under-18s’ 7-1 thrashing of Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup last month as both terrorised the Gunners.

Meanwhile, while the central striker against Stoke Under-21s with the Welshman on the left, it was his reverse pass from deep that played in his fellow forward for his second goal. A prolific finish alongside such traits, he really is emerging as an all-round forward

And before a drastic growth spurt, he often found himself compared to Reds legend Roberto Firmino in the club’s academy.

“When I was young, I used to get compared to (Roberto) Firmino,” he recently told the club. “I wasn’t as tall when I was younger, I was quite a late developer, and then all in a short period of time everything hit me at once.

“Back in the day I was like a No.9-and-a-half, where I’m still a No.9 but I love to drop in. The last couple of years, I’ve started to run in behind more as I’ve got more physical and believed in my pace a little bit more.

“One of my goals last season was to work on my pressing, to be honest. It’s got a lot better with my physicality as I’ve grown into my body but also when you add the work that we’ve put into it to keep pressing and keep counter-pressing… you can see the results.

“I think at least four of my goals this season are off pressing a man and they might give it away for me to go and slip in behind and score.”

With Klopp’s trademark hard-working pressing game evident throughout the academy, Danns’s intense work-rate is also clear as he thrives when defending from the front and leading the press, and was very much on show against Luton in his brief time on the pitch.

While Danns has 21 goals at academy level this season, unique superstition means he tries his hardest to avoid such a fact himself.

“I’m a superstitious person,” he admitted to the club website. “I’ve got this superstition that as soon as I start counting my goals, the goals will stop. I haven’t been counting them and hopefully they keep coming.”

Only the striker himself will know if he plans to similarly not keep track of his own total of first team appearances after making his first team debut.

Having started to train with Klopp’s first team in recent weeks, prompting the German to name-drop him in press conferences on more than one occasion, Danns’ senior breakthrough is not a shock. There was a suspicion that he would be handed a maiden matchday squad appearance against Luton, after all, when his manager referenced him when previewing the game.

His rise has still been eye-catching though, of course, with the teenager himself determined to make up for lost time. He missed roughly eight months of action at Under-16s level when suffering with Osgood-Schlatter’s disease. Undergoing a drastic growth spurt, it causes pain in the knee for growing teens.

At the start of last season, a source close to the striker conceded to the ECHO that it would take the striker a few months to get up to speed and get his co-ordination back following his growth spurt. Now 18 months on and he is flourishing and hungry for more.

“When you get up there, you’ve got to keep the standard that they’re keeping,” he recently said of training with the first team. “It’s all a new level and I really want to work hard to become the players that they are right now.

“My only focus is to put my all into what I’m doing and keep practising and keep doing extras to get where they are. My long-term aim is to be the best player I can possibly be.

“I don’t want to end my career and have any regrets where I could have worked harder. I’d rather just put all the work in and try to get as much as I can from it. Step by step, I want to become the player that I envision.”

Meanwhile, of his prolonged stint on the sidelines, he recalled: “In the space of such a short time, I think I went from 5ft 2in to 6ft I was out for like eight months with Osgood and that was a tough time for me. You’re thinking, ‘Why’s this happening to me?’

“Obviously when you get back you start to appreciate it so much. Coming back, I just tried to get the most out of what I can really.

“But it makes you learn things and learn different ways to improve. If you look at me last season, I don’t think I was as powerful. I was a bit more leggy and Bambi-like!

“This season, I’m really filling out into my body and I’m just enjoying my football at the moment. I like making runs forward, I like dropping in deep to get the ball. It feels like everything is coming together. I’m just really enjoying it.”

He was enjoying it even more against Luton, with Klopp revealing a touching exchange with his latest debutant after the final whistle.

“I am so happy the kids came on and played,” he said. “Dannsy said 50 times, ‘Thank you, boss! Thank you, boss!’ I am so happy I could give them that opportunity. It’s just nice and the boys deserve it.”

Of course, the teenager is equally grateful to his family for all help and guidance along the way.

“If I didn’t have him, there’d be moments where I didn’t want to practise and it isn’t drilled into my head,” Danns recently said about his dad. “Now I think I’m into that routine to where it’s hard to fail if you really want it that much.

“That’s been drilled into me – if you really want it, work as hard as possible and you’ll get that because you’ve got the talent and the physicality now. My mum helps with the diet and that side as well. I’m in debt for the rest of my life really, I owe my life to them.”

While Danns is now a Liverpool player, things could have been rather different. Both Everton and Manchester United were chasing his signature, before he signed for the Reds.

“He was doing futsal at Edge Hill Tennis Centre and Everton were the first to approach us about him,” father Neil recalled in an exclusive interview with the ECHO last season. “The next week Liverpool approached us.

“I know Everton weren’t happy about that at the time – it was like a little battle. We took him to Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United so he could appreciate the different styles, but we always knew we were going to Liverpool.

“The whole family supports Liverpool so we always knew that. From the age of eight, he has gone all the way through since then.

“I’m unbelievably proud. He has still got a long way to go as he’s only 16, but he has got the right attitude and mindset to go as far as he wants. I just said to him he has to work hard every day and enjoy his football.

“The main thing is to keep learning each day and it has been amazing to watch him develop. He made his England debut last year and scoring in that was one of the proudest moments a father can have. For me, it was just about him having fun and playing football.

“Everton approached us and we thought, ‘Oh, that’s good someone has noticed him’. We weren’t actively looking for him to get a club, he was just there to enjoy himself.”

He continued: “It would mean so much to me (if he played for the first team) because I know how much he wants it and the work he puts into it. I just want him to live out his dreams.

“The realism of it all is that to make your debut for Liverpool Football Club, you’ve got to bring that hard work and have a bit of luck along the way too. I don’t ever want him to be too down or stressed whatever happens because there is a lot of pressure on youngsters.”

All being well, there will be many more proud days to come as Danns’ dream just became a reality. But both player and club will hope that this is only the beginning.

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