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    BEN WOODBURN: THE BABY FACE OF WALES' NEW ERA?

    It wasn't long after Wales crashed out of the World Cup that the national football conversation moved on to the future. With Chris Coleman considering a move and James Collins bidding farewell to the international scene, it might well be time for some of the future stars of Welsh football to bound into the present.

    When discussing the future of Welsh football, there is one particularly fresh face that springs to mind more readily than others. Liverpool starlet Ben Woodburn has been a revelation since he became the ninth-youngest Wales international last season, and has impressed in a handful of appearances for the five-time European champions before scoring the winner on his international debut in a 1-0 win over Austria.





    Now 18, Woodburn has the ability to play in a number of positions, featuring in both midfield and attack for his country. Known as a direct and tricky player with the ball at feet, he's also a player with a good range of passing and can muck in defensively, too, with a 75% tackle success rate as per Premier League statistics.

    No Welshman since Gareth Bale has attracted this sort of attention so early in his career, Ryan Giggs before him, and the question now is whether the Liverpool prospect can go on to fulfil his potential and scale the heights of those two predecessors. No pressure, then.

    Will he get enough opportunity?
    The most common stumbling block when it comes to the development of young footballers is a lack of opportunity, an issue heightened when that player is contracted to a club with the size and stature of Liverpool. Including youth football, statistics from Transfermarkt put the number of club minutes played by Woodburn this season at just 663.

    Jurgen Klopp clearly rates Woodburn, having made him the club's third-youngest player at the age of 17 years and 42 days in November 2016. Indeed, he's also the club's youngest ever goalscorer, beating the record of Michael Owen by 98 days in a League Cup tie against Leeds United three days later. This season, though, he's found opportunities at more of a premium, with the club knocked out of the youngster-friendly Carabao Cup at the first stage.





    The German has a track record of playing and improving players from his time at Dortmund and if the recent resurgence of England's Joe Gomez is anything to go by, Woodburn may well be in the right place. The German has given debuts to no fewer than 19 players since his arrival and Steven Gerrard is his manager at academy level, entrusting the Welshman with the captaincy of the club's impressive u18 side. With a busy winter schedule and an FA Cup campaign to negotiate alongside Premier League and European commitments, Wales fans should expect Woodburn to be reintroduced to the Liverpool fold in the coming weeks and add to his 10 competitive appearances.

    If not, however, Woodburn would be well-advised to seek a loan move elsewhere in January. The youngster was linked with a move to Bundesliga side Hannover 96 in the summer, and if a January deal is likely, according to an interview with super-agent Jon Smith negotiations as to his destination may well already be underway. Woodburn's teammate Ryan Kent was the Liverpool youngster who did make the move to Hannover, and it is likely that Klopp would also hand the Welshman the opportunity to get some game time abroad rather than in England.

    And at international level?
    It may well be the case that Woodburn makes more appearances for Wales than he does his club over the next couple of seasons. Having made such an instant impact, Coleman would surely be crazy to shuffle the youngster back into the ranks, and with four caps already, he's settling into the rhythm of international football nicely.





    As with Klopp, this Welsh set-up seems intent on welcoming youth into the side, with the likes of Woodburn's clubmate Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu having been handed teenage debuts. Unless Coleman is replaced with a manager with completely different ideas, there should be no issue here.

    Utilised as an impact substitute on the wing, as a flair player in behind the striker or indeed as a foil to Gareth Bale up top, Woodburn has all the skills to continue his international career should Coleman, or indeed Coleman's successor, trust him with the responsibility of becoming a regular fixture. After qualification failure this time out the youngster may well be seen as the face of a new Welsh era.

    Who's with him?
    At international level, it's imperative that Woodburn isn't alone in his attempts to rouse the national game and ensure any momentum built during Euro 2016 isn't completely wasted.

    The likes of Ampadu and Wilson are certainly huge prospects, and whilst their own development is in danger of inhibition by the same issues above, Wales certainly aren't a side short of talent. Swansea City will need to hold on to their Premier League status is they are able to continue their current level of multi-million-pound investment in youth football, a source of immense pride for the set-up that has produced more Wales players than any other club.




    Outside of these player sources, Woodburn will surely benefit from the presence of Everton defender Gethin Jones, his centre-back partner Regan Poole, of Manchester United, Ampadu's Chelsea teammate Cole Dasilva and Man City prospect Matthew Smith. This vast pool of Welsh talent is all but unheard of and with the prize money from the side's Euro 2016 exploits being reinvested in youth football, this crop is going to have as good a chance of any at taking Welsh football to the next level.

    Ben Woodburn is a young man with the world at his feet, but its weight on his shoulders. There are difficult issues to sidestep, of that there is little doubt that, if managed in the correct way, he can scale the heights of the players before him.


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    Posted: Wednesday 15th November 2017
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