Great Britain

Liverpool vs Shrewsbury: James Milner offers throwback to past as faith in Reds youngsters repaid

If the youngest team in Liverpool’s history offered a glimpse of the future, off the pitch there was a throwback to the past. There was a time when a charismatic leader stood aside and a modest figure stood in seamlessly, a point when the player in the No. 7 shirt showed his skills as a rookie manager. If Jurgen Klopp bears comparison to Bill Shankly, it is a sizeable stretch to bracket Neil Critchley alongside Bob Paisley or to brand James Milner the new Kenny Dalglish. But as the German took his own mid-season break, Liverpool reached the FA Cup fifth round under their academy manager, aided and abetted by a cast of kids and an ersatz assistant who had volunteered his services.

Perhaps it is in keeping with Milner’s grounded character that, while others jetted off for some winter sun, he was at first Melwood and then Anfield. Liverpool’s oldest outfield player had delivered a team talk to a team with an average age of 19. “He asked whether he could come along,” recounted Critchley. “The answer was: ‘Yes, of course you can.’ It was very respectful to ask.

He then said: ‘Can I come in the dressing room?’ What do you think? To have someone like him who has achieved so much in the game – that is because of who he is. He was genuinely delighted at how the boys performed. I can’t thank him enough.” Sat behind the dugout, animated and vocal, Milner the motivator perhaps had more of an emotional investment in Liverpool’s win over Shrewsbury than the absent Klopp.

Download the new Independent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

“We have given him a game against Chelsea to look forward to,” added Critchley, tongue perhaps in cheek.

Sometimes it seems that Klopp’s best-laid plans are thwarted not by opponents, but by Liverpool themselves. Minus 22 rested senior players, granting five debuts, Liverpool advanced anyway, courtesy of a ludicrous own goal from Ro-Shaun Williams.

Perhaps Klopp’s one-man protest against the authorities and about the crowded calendar backfired. Minus the German, apparently watching from an unspecified location, Liverpool’s youngsters turned it into an uplifting affair. Liverpool might yet be the accidental Treble winners, conjuring ways of going through when they would happily go out.

One of the club’s slogans, “this means more”, appeared on the advertising hoardings before kick-off. Perhaps the FA Cup has rarely mattered less to Liverpool; or to their manager and powerbrokers, anyway.  Maybe it mattered to fans; some 52,399 constituted one of this season’s biggest FA Cup attendance and showed the super-clubs can complicate the debate about the competition’s status by bringing in the crowds. “Full house,” said Critchley. “Absolutely ridiculous.”

Milner watched on from the sidelines (AFP)

It meant plenty to players too young to remember Steven Gerrard lifting the trophy in 2006. Sepp van den Berg set off in celebration when the final whistle went in the manner of a man who had won the competition. Neco Williams performed like a man possessed, Curtis Jones like one relishing the responsibility of the captaincy, Pedro Chirivella with the strange seniority of a footballer whose 10 previous games made him the most experienced individual involved.

There was a smile of disbelief on the face of Critchley, who has now overseen more FA Cup wins at Anfield than Roy Hodgson. “It will probably never happen again,” said the stand-in, reliving the moment when the Kop chorused You’ll Never Walk Alone as a glorified Under-23 team, some of whom may never play at Anfield again, did a lap of honour at the end.

Liverpool fashioned a better narrative than if a raft of senior players had swatted the side 16th in League One aside. After the initial outrage at Klopp’s absence, and the supposed disrespect for the competition, maybe the grounds for criticism could be different. Maybe Liverpool will eventually think they took the principle too far.

Curtis Jones celebrates after Shrewsbury scored an own goal (AP)

The pragmatic stance may have been to say that squad players like Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Adam Lallana, Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino could have done with the minutes ahead of more demanding tests; that, indeed, the Japanese might have benefited from a first goal at Anfield. Liam Millar and Joe Hardy may never get another opportunity to lead the line for Liverpool but Minamino had the greater need for an outing against lesser opponents.

Perhaps he will be seen at Stamford Bridge. The chances are Critchley will not be. “I will check my diary,” he grinned, safe in the knowledge Klopp will assume control again. “I am sure I can make myself available.”