The Liverpool kids who won the Cup – with some help from Virgil van Dijk

Virgil van Dijk was all smiles as he sat in the Wembley dressing room with his winners' medal around his neck and Dua Lipa's One Kiss playing on the sound system.

“They thought I was finished,” the Liverpool captain said sarcastically.

This was an apparent reference to the criticism he received last season when Jurgen Klopp's Anfield reign went worryingly off the rails. Since then no one has contributed more to the club's exciting resurgence than Van Dijk.

How he has accepted to take on greater responsibility since being handed the armband following the departure of Jordan Henderson last summer. How he has returned to operating at the peak of his powers.

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Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate celebrate their success in the Wembley dressing room (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It was the story of the master and his apprentices combining to help Liverpool complete the first leg of a potential quadruple during Klopp's emotion-packed farewell tour.

The circumstances were remarkable. They had no right to win this Carabao Cup final. When Ryan Gravenberch went off on a stretcher midway through the first half following a challenge from Moises Caicedo, Klopp was left without a dozen members of his senior squad through injury.

As an energy-draining competition took its toll, the manager turned to the rookies behind him on the bench. Teenagers Bobby Clarke, James McConnell and Jaden Dannes claimed only 15 first-team appearances between them.

Jerel Quansah, a comparatively experienced forward at age 21, followed during extra time. Connor Bradley ran himself onto the field before being replaced. Five young academy products on the biggest stage against Chelsea's expensively assembled line-up. Common sense dictated that Liverpool would ultimately be found wanting.

Yet instead of withering, they stood. There was courage, composure and resilience in abundance. Klopp's faith was repaid.

“Everything was prepared for us to lose the game, but we didn't accept it and that's really good,” Klopp said. “I loved how brave the boys were. This is an amazing story.”

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Klopp takes the post-match view at Wembley (Robbie J Barrett – AMA/Getty Images)

They had an ideal leader and role model in Van Dijk, who dealt with all the threats coming his direction with a calm demeanor and inspired those around him. Behind the captain was the excellent Caoimhin Kelleher; In front was the tireless Wataru Ando.

How fitting that Van Dijk, who had earlier seen a header ruled out, made the decisive contribution when he celebrated Kostas Tsimikas's corner in extra time. His legs heavy with fatigue, he fell at the feet of the Greek left-back before being surrounded by his teammates.

“My first trophy as captain of Liverpool and I'm very proud of this team,” he said. “It's something I'll always cherish.”

As they climbed the steps at Wembley, Van Dijk remained adamant that Klopp should lift the trophy with him, a gesture that meant a lot to the manager. “I would have liked him to do it alone, but he really wanted me to have my hands on it and I like that,” Klopp said. “This is a very special moment for Virg. I know how much he loves the club and the role.”

Youngsters had big eyes on their faces during a rousing rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone as players and staff shook hands in front of an excited Liverpool end. As they headed down the tunnel and were reunited with their families in the players' lounge, the enormity of what they had contributed was just beginning to sink in.

Liverpool-born 18-year-old Danes found himself leading the charge at Wembley, having made a brief senior debut from the bench against Luton Town just four days earlier.

The son of former Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Neil Dannes, he is the academy's leading scorer with 21 goals so far this season and has been on the books at Kirkby since the age of eight after being spotted playing futsal locally. Danes was sidelined for almost a year due to knee pain caused by Osgood–Schlatter disease after growing rapidly from 5 feet 2 inches (157 cm) to 6 feet tall, but he played impressively during the season. Have developed and filled out physically.

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McConnell, Danes and Trey Nyoni celebrate with the trophy (Sebastian Freese/MB Media/Getty Images)

McConnell, 19, initially arrived from Sunderland as an attacking midfielder at the age of 15, but was taught by Klopp and Pep Lijnders in a holding role last pre-season after Fabinho and Henderson left for Saudi Arabia.

He proved to be a quick learner and his leadership qualities were recognized when coach Barry Lewtas handed him the captaincy of the under-21 side.

Clarke, who is contracted to Newcastle United in 2021, was the subject of considerable loan interest from Football League clubs in January, but those approaches were rejected as Liverpool felt they needed to keep him on board as cover. Is. Given the injuries that followed, this was a smart move for all parties.

The son of former Newcastle United midfielder Lee Clark has made seven of nine senior appearances for Liverpool since the turn of the year and, on each occasion, he has been excellent with his work both on and off the ball.

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Clarke will face Chelsea's Ben Chilwell (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“Bobby Clarke's development has been really crazy, I have to say,” Klopp said. “The development of James McConnell has been absolutely crazy and Jaden Dannes has recently joined us for first-team training. I loved her from the first second.

“Can you create football stories no one will ever forget? If you get the same story of academy players playing against a top team and still winning it, I have never heard of it.”

Quansah and Bradley are higher profile than the other three given their first-team appearances, but it is worth remembering how far they have come in such a short time. A year ago he was on loan at Bristol Rovers and Bolton in the third tier respectively.

Injuries to Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold opened the door for him at Liverpool this season and he thrived. Kwansa has been at Liverpool since the age of five, while Bradley was nine when he joined Liverpool's Northern Ireland Development Centre. These have been long-term projects for Academy Director Alex Inglethorpe and his staff.

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“I don't think I can really put it into words,” Bradley said, smiling. “I've supported this club since I was about five years old, so to win a trophy with them at Wembley… I'm just buzzing.

“I think it all comes from the gaffer: the confidence he puts in us youngsters. When the Under-21s and Under-18s all play the same way, it becomes much easier to break into the first team. He is a special manager under whom one should work. I just need to cherish every moment I spend with him because apparently he's leaving in the summer.

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Harvey Elliott, himself just 20, and Klopp with the trophy (Robbie J Barrett – AMA/Getty Images)

The talent behind Klopp's production line certainly bodes well for the future. The challenge is to ensure that the structure and culture remain intact.

Andy Robertson admitted, “The young boys were fearless.”

“He played with confidence and freedom. When? Everyone came for the pre-match meal, you could see all the quality players we were missing. Credit to the youngsters – you could see the excitement in them when they realized they were going to get a chance.

“He brought a new passion and composure on the ball which helped us move forward,” he said. Then maybe the oldest player goes on the pitch and becomes the winner for us. He also belonged to a different class. We went with everything we had and came away with a winning medal in the end.”

(Top photo: Sebastien Frias/MB Media/Getty Images)

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