Great Britain

Rhys Williams’ story is inspirational but West Ham will hope to make his life difficult as hell on Liverpool Prem debut

IF you’re playing a team as outstanding as Liverpool, the slightest hint of a weak link gives you hope.

So if 19-year-old centre-back Rhys Williams makes his debut against West Ham at Anfield today, you can bet West Ham will be determined to make his life as difficult as hell.

I love this kid’s story — on loan with Kidderminster Harriers in National League North last season, then playing an hour of a Champions League game at Anfield on Tuesday.

Having been on loan at a non-league club, I know how good a grounding he will have got.

And that says so much about the strength of the English pyramid system, which is something that needs protecting now more than ever.

But however talented Williams is — and he looks good — West Ham will have been working on targeting him, getting the ball behind him, making him turn and face goal with an experienced Premier League striker breathing down his neck.

They will target him with crosses and set-pieces, they will target him relentlessly.

This is no disrespect to Williams. When Virgil van Dijk, the best defender in the world, is absent, then any replacement will be a downgrade.

But with Joel Matip and Fabinho also injured, there is an obvious potential weakness in the Liverpool defence.

Jurgen Klopp’s other option will be Jordan Henderson. I’ve got huge admiration for Jordan but unlike Fabinho, who has played a lot of in defence, he has barely played there.

When Watford ended Liverpool’s unbeaten record with a 3-0 win last season, Dejan Lovren was in defence.

Lovren has played in World Cup finals and Champions League finals but even he was singled out as a potential weakness as he hadn’t been playing regularly.

If you’re Watford or West Ham, you know that if Liverpool play at ten out of ten and you play at ten out of ten, you are going to lose.

You need the stars to align. You need every player to be at ten out of ten and every Liverpool player to be at six or seven and that is what happened.

But if it’s Williams, on debut, or Henderson, in such an  unfamiliar role, you know there is a chance.

While we all miss fans being in the stadium, this behind-closed-doors era is a good time for Williams to make his debut.

Even though a capacity crowd on The Kop would be doing everything they could to support him, you would still be able to sense the edginess.

Liverpool haven’t started this season as well as they’ve played in the last two campaigns, so one mistake from a youngster and that edginess can spread.

In normal times, Williams would probably have 20 family members at Anfield — and that brings extra pressure, too. That’s difficult to block out.

So I hope Klopp does give him the chance today.

I think it’s great that Williams went down to National League North because that is a real life experience.

When I was at Walsall I went on loan to Halesowen Town, a similar level to Kiddy, and that is an experience I still look back on.

If you’re a kid who has come through a Premier League academy, you are going to be used to the best facilities and having privilege.

That’s their version of ‘normal’ — so I think any player between 17 and 20 would benefit from going on loan and experiencing a whole different world.

You often hear a kid like Williams will head to the lower leagues and get a kicking and be forced to toughen up.

That is true. You have to learn to be a man in a boy’s body — but that isn’t the whole story. At Halesowen, I had team-mates who played a Saturday afternoon match, got showered, then headed straight out for a 12-hour night shift working on the roads or the railways.

Then there’s the travel. I remember going on a five-hour trip to Merthyr Tydfil — 20-odd lads packed into the sort of bus your kids travel into the  swimming pool at school.

Then they’d stop off at service stations and have a pack of Discos for their pre-match meal.

In the Premier League you have luxury travel. At Watford we might have flown to Sheffield, or first-class rail to Manchester, or in a coach with a full-on kitchen out the back.

Then there’s the fans, the 100 or so who follow Halesowen away. The dedication of those people to their small club and the support they gave to someone like me made me feel ten feet tall.

You learn to respect the non leagues and lower leagues — the histories of those clubs, what they mean to their communities.

These smaller clubs are under threat because of Covid. But the solution is not to have Liverpool B and Manchester United B playing in League One — that would take so much away from what makes English football unique.

I’m sure Williams will agree.

And I’m sure if he plays for the mighty Liverpool today, he will be thankful for the  opportunity to have played for Kidderminster Harriers.

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