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Balotelli antics, Sakho demotion and Liverpool starlet's dressing room stories

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Former Liverpool starlet Jordan Williams has Adam Lallana to thank for one of the most memorable moments of his career.

Now going by MJ at Bolton Wanderers, the midfielder came through the ranks at Anfield and was handed his Reds debut for a League Cup clash with Middlesbrough back in 2014.



Introduced as a 79th minute substitute as the two sides fought out a 2-2 draw, the then 18-year-old rejected first team coach Mike Marsh’s suggestion to take one of the Reds’ five penalties.



With a little persuasion from Lallana, he did not need asking twice when the shoot-out went to sudden death.



“When it went to penalties, I just knew I had to take one,” he recalled in an exclusive interview with the ECHO. “Mike Marsh told me to take one, as in one of the five but I thought, “I can’t do that!” but when it went to sudden death, I thought, “Now’s my time.”

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“When you get the chance to step up and play for Liverpool, you have to be brave and you have to be confident. I thought this was a chance to show what I am about and thankfully I stepped up and put it away.

“It was the best feeling I’ve ever had. I remember walking up to the spot and the Kop just started roaring. You just feel like this gust of wind coming straight across your face.

“We did penalties the day before in training and that’s one of the reasons why I took the penalty, because Adam Lallana said to me, “I saw you yesterday in training hitting them. Take it.”

“A couple of the other lads were like, “No, no, don’t put him under that pressure,” but I was like, “No, I will.” And Lallana actually forced me to take it so I had to take it.”

Lallana wasn’t the only senior player to share words with Williams that night.

Mario Balotelli’s time with Liverpool was brief and hardly fondly-remembered, but his own exchange with the Welshman shows a side to the controversial striker that fans don’t get to witness.

“After I took my penalty, he was one of the first people that came and put their arm around me,” Williams shared. “He was like, “I respect you so much because when I was that age, that’s how I was.” For him to go out of his way and say that was amazing.”

Now 25, the midfielder remained at Liverpool until 2018 but would be unable to add to his solitary appearance against Boro despite a number of match squad appearances.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have plenty of Reds stories to share from his time under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp, including a couple about Balotelli and his chaotic nature during his year in the Anfield dressing room.

“I’ve got plenty but there’s only a couple which I can actually say!” Williams chuckled. “He was an absolute top guy. Some people got the wrong perception of him.

“I’ve seen stories about him scoring own goals in training and that is probably true. I’ve seen it once.

“I just remember one incident, we were in the changing rooms and Brendan Rodgers was speaking to the lads.

Mario Balotelli and Jordan Williams of Liverpool in action during a training session at Melwood Training Ground on October 23, 2014 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“The ones on the bench were behind him and I just remember this opened tangerine and him throwing little pieces towards my face.

“A tangerine just slapped me around the face and I’m thinking, “Who was that?!” You can’t laugh or anything because the manager is speaking and I remember looking up and seeing Balotelli round the corner, by the toilets, just laughing his head off.

“This guy, I couldn’t believe he was throwing tangerines at my face while the manager was speaking. Rodgers couldn’t see me behind him and I was trying to hold my laugh in, it was horrible.

“He was a funny guy. Some of the stuff he did in training, I wouldn’t dream to do but I can only speak well of him.”

Balotelli might not have respected Rodgers but Williams certainly did with the Northern Irishman playing a vital role in his early career.

It was the now-Leicester City boss’ call to send him on loan to Swindon Town, where son Anton Rodgers played at the time, with his time with the Robins earning the midfielder a maiden international call-up for Wales.

And while a serious knee injury suffered with Swindon in October 2015 was ultimately the beginning of the end for his time with Liverpool, Williams has fond memories of his time under Rodgers.

“What a top manager he is, I loved him. His sessions, the way he went about his team talks, he was a top manager and he gave me confidence.

“I was up with the first team for four or five months. I could go into his office and just speak to him, even as a young lad. He always wanted me to improve and I thank him so much.”

Due to his injuries and time spent out on loan, Williams had limited interactions with Klopp following his appointment as Reds manager in October 2015.

However, he was given a glimpse of how the German runs things at Liverpool when included in a Reds matchday squad for the final time for an FA Cup clash with Plymouth Argyle in January 2017.

“I only trained a couple of times with him because I was out on loan then came back injured,” Williams admits. “It was tough because I wasn’t around so he probably didn’t know who I was.

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“But I got into the squad once for the Plymouth game in the cup so got two sessions with him.

“Just seeing how he prepares for games, the amount of confidence he puts into the lads is amazing. He believes in every single one of them. He is just a top manager.”

Ultimately seeing out his Liverpool career in the Under-23s squad, Williams was joined by Mamadou Sakho in the Reds’ second-string following the Frenchman’s infamous demotion following a pre-season tour fall-out with Klopp in the summer of 2016.

There remains an element of intrigue regarding the defender’s final months at Anfield with his manager unmoved on the possibility of a senior return for the France international.

Having played together in the first team, Williams was close with Sakho and has lifted the lid on how the defender reacted to his demotion.

And while he might appear a clumsy, joker to the public, a rather new light is shed on the defender as his former team-mate shares his most generous side.

“It was amazing how he approached it. Every single day, he was one of the earliest in and he gave everything training with us,” Williams recalled in awe. “I’ve seen in the past where some players have dropped down and sacked it off a little bit but he was just how he was with the first team every single day.

“I really got on with him because when I was up with the first team, I knew him, and he was probably one of the best guys with me. He was top class with the young lads.

“When he dropped down, I used to speak to him every day. He gave me a pair of boots but he had massive feet and they didn’t fit me! They were like size twelve!

“He was like, “That’s a gift for you, my friend!” I was like, “Oh, brilliant,” took them and passed them onto a friend who was a big Liverpool fan.

“He used to say to all of us, “If you ever want to go over to Paris, I will sort you out.” I think Harry Wilson took it up once, and he sorted out all his hotels, his food, his nights out. He was a top guy.

“It would have been hard for him, he could have just turned up late every day and sacked it off but every day he was in and training hard.

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“I remember him doing a big talk with all the age-groups from Under-18s to Under-23s for about an hour with us, just talking about his days in Paris, how he was with France and playing for the first team. He was an honest guy and a top guy as well.”

Williams wasn’t the only player to benefit from Sakho’s wisdom following his demotion with two current members of Klopp’s squad also in the Liverpool youth ranks at the time.

The 25-year-old played alongside both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nat Phillips during his time at Anfield, and while they both embarked on very different paths to the Reds’ first team, Williams is not surprised at all to see them having such an impact for Liverpool.

“With Trent, you could always see he was going to be a top player,” he admits. “We’d go and watch his age-group and he’d always be the best player in the team.

“I remember him coming up and training with us, I played with him a couple of times, and seeing the quality he had was unbelievable. I just knew he was going to make it, he deserves everything.

“I wouldn’t let anyone say he needs to improve because I love watching him play, he’s got no fear. He looks like a player who’s been around Liverpool for so long, like Gerrard was, only wanting to win and no matter what it is, he’ll make sure he does.”

He continued: “Nat is a top guy, I still speak to him now. I remember he came in on a week-trial and needed to find out if he was being kept on because he had his scholarship lined up in America.

“He just improved every season he was there. Every day, he was one of the hardest workers. He would be in the gym or on the pitch longer than anyone. He deserves everything he has got because the amount of work he put in was amazing.

“I am so happy for him because he is such a humble lad. To see him doing so well, having had opportunities to leave, he’s stuck at it and it paid off for him now.”

Williams’ first involvement with the Liverpool first team coincided with Steven Gerrard’s final season at the club.

As a boyhood Reds fan who also played in midfield, the Welshman feels honoured to have trained alongside the Liverpool legend as he recalls just how dominant the now Rangers boss was in training.

“I was made up that Steven Gerrard was still part of it when I was up there. I learnt so much from him,” he said. “I watched him every single day. The way he ate, the way he training, every single day he gave everything.

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“He was a top man. You can learn so much from those types of players. It was a great experience for me.

“I loved him growing up. I watched him all the time. To train with him every day and watch him play, it was something special for me. You could take so much from him, even just how he acts around the hotel, because he’d been at the top-level for so many years and was probably the best midfielder in the Premier League.”

Williams continued: “He was a top guy because he put his arm around me at times and had a conversation with me. After sessions, we’d do things like shooting and he’d always involve me, I’d always be with him after sessions.

“In sessions, you’re up against him and he was unbelievable. You couldn’t get near him, if you were on his team you’d be winning. He was that good. He just had an effect on the sessions so much.

“I can’t say much more about him, he’s a top guy and a top player. Everything I already thought about him, it got even more when I was around him.

“He’s obviously the best player I’ve ever trained with. It was a shock (when he announced he was leaving).

“I was gutted, I remember watching it on Sky Sports News at the training ground and it was awkward. I would have loved to have seen him carry on but good things have to come to an end at some point.”

Williams, understandably, wishes he had enjoyed a longer Liverpool career, but, having just won promotion to League One with Bolton Wanderers is happy with the path he now finds himself on.

And when reflecting on his time inside the Reds dressing room, he is just proud he got to live his boyhood dream.

“It was good because when I was training with the first team, I did felt part of it and could stand my ground,” Williams said. “I didn’t look out of place and that was the main thing for me.

“You get used to the pace they’re at. In the first session you do with them, you do stuff you wouldn’t normally do because you’re that nervous because they’re top players and players you’ve watched growing up.

“Once you’re in there, it’s comfortable and I loved every minute. I wish I had played a lot more times for Liverpool but once you play once for Liverpool, no-one can take it away from you.”

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