Kevin Stewart's new deal should inspire hope for Liverpool youngsters
Two months ago many Liverpool supporters hadn't even heard of Kevin Stewart, while even those who were familiar with the young midfielder were hardly calling for him to be handed a call-up to the first team. In fairness, why would they? At 22 years of age, he was not a kid anymore and he had already been deemed not good enough by one Premier League club -- Tottenham -- and had then spent most of the last 12 months on loan at various lower league clubs.
He didn't look to be anywhere near the senior side, yet since the turn of the year Stewart has made five appearances for the first team and performed so well that this week he was rewarded with a new four-year contract, with the option of a fifth year.
Of course that doesn't mean he has "made it" yet, and the odds are still stacked against him from becoming an established member of the starting XI. His hardest job is yet to come, but all things considered, he's done remarkably well to get this far and has already far exceeded most people's expectations.
Stewart joined the Reds in the summer of 2014 as a free agent after being released by Spurs. Liverpool had offered him a contract on the recommendation of Alex Inglethorpe, who was their under-21 boss at the time (he's since been promoted to Academy Director). Inglethorpe knew Stewart well from his time working as a youth coach at Spurs, but it's probably fair to say he was not signed with the first team in mind.
It's unlikely that Liverpool would have pursued Stewart had there been a transfer fee involved, but it was a risk-free punt on a player who was available for free and who Inglethorpe knew to have great character and a tremendous work ethic. At best he might surprise people and develop into a Premier League player; at worst he would boost an under-21 squad that has been repeatedly weakened in recent years by the club policy of loaning out their best young players.
Even allowing for the high regard that he had for the player, Inglethorpe could never have predicted the events of the last few months. After all, back when Stewart first joined the club he was a right-footed left-back who had not been good enough for Spurs. He'd never even played in midfield at that point and few expected him to be at Anfield beyond his initial two-year contract. As recently as two months ago that still looked to be the case.
Liverpool normally only sign a young player after he has been heavily scouted and identified as a potential first team talent. There's always a fee involved and in some cases that fee can amount to millions of pounds. It's usually accompanied with lots of hype about how he is a star of the future, or "the next (insert random superstar player name)" and that a host of top clubs were beaten to his signature. Stewart had none of that and his recent progress provides inspiration for every other young player at the club, regardless of their current place in the pecking order.
For all the money spent on "stars of the future" Liverpool have had just as much success with the unheralded, under the radar youth players as they have had with those tipped to be "the next big thing". Occasionally the tortoise does beat the hare and Stewart is not the only example of it at Anfield.
For example, Jon Flanagan admits himself that he was never the star of any of the youth teams he played in, but he just kept progressing and eventually managed to break through and then stick around. In his age group it was England youth stars Adam Morgan, Jack Robinson and Conor Coady who always got the most attention, as well as much-hyped Spanish recruit Suso. Flanagan just quietly did his work in the background and eventually eclipsed all of them.
Brad Smith is another who has had a bumpy ride to the first team setup. He didn't even have a club earlier this season after failing to agree a new contract with Liverpool last summer. He eventually agreed to terms and hasn't looked back. Both Smith and Flanagan, like Stewart, have had their low points and at times must have felt they were not going to make it.
As a lifelong Liverpool fan, Stewart must now be pinching himself about all that has happened to him so far in 2016. Only three months ago he was injured and hoping to get fit again just so he could resume his loan at Swindon Town. Not even in his wildest dreams could he have envisioned where he is now. Indeed, but for an unfortunate training ground injury picked up last week, he might have even been involved at Wembley this Sunday when the Reds face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final.
He should not bemoan that bad fortune too much, however, as injuries -- both to himself and others -- have played a big part in his recent rise to prominence. Current u21 boss Michael Beale revealed recently how the switch to midfield originally only came about because of illness to another player.
"The under-21s played Norwich away just before Christmas last season. Connor Randall, who was going to play in midfield, felt ill in the pre-match. I sprung it on Kevin. We hadn't worked on it in training, but I played him in midfield and he was outstanding that night. It took us back a bit. We thought: 'wow, we'll persevere with that'. He played four or five more games in midfield before going out on loan."
The problem for Stewart was that he was behind both Jordan Rossiter and Jordan Williams for a spot in the u21s midfield. Both are younger than him, both had already played for the first team and were regarded as brighter prospects, so there appeared to be little chance of Stewart getting a look.
Sometimes with young players you just don't know how good they are until they get an opportunity to show it at the top level, but it's not always possible to give them that opportunity and circumstances and timing often play a huge part. Certainly, an awful lot of pieces had to fall into place for Stewart to get his chance.
Firstly, there was the illness to Randall that initially opened the door for him to play in midfield for the u21s for the first time. No one knew it at the time, but that would prove to be a major turning point in his career path.
Secondly, there's the injury that cut short his loan at Swindon earlier this season and forced him to return to Merseyside, not to mention the timing of his return to fitness after that injury; a few weeks earlier and he may have gone back to Swindon, a few weeks later and he'd have missed his opportunity to play in Klopp's FA Cup "shadow squad". Fortunately for Stewart, his timing was perfect and he was able to catch Klopp's eye in a training ground friendly a few days before the Reds were due to face Exeter.
Thirdly, there was the fixture pile up that forced Klopp to rest many of his senior players. Had Liverpool been knocked out of the Capital One Cup in the early rounds (and they were taken to penalties by Carlisle United, don't forget) Klopp would not have been forced to turn to his younger players, meaning Stewart would never have been given the opportunity to show he belongs at the top level.
Lastly, had it not been for injuries to both Rossiter and Williams, Stewart might not have even been in the conversation for a first team spot. So many things had to happen for him to get that opportunity and without everything coming together as it did, Stewart would probably still be a relative unknown to many Kopites. Fortune played a big part in him getting the chance to show what he can do, but everything that has happened since is down to his own talent and hard work.
Beale recently described Stewart as "the hardest working player we have" before adding "we have to drag him out of the gym!" Stewart's unlikely rise to Liverpool's first team squad is proof that hard work and patience can take you far, but sometimes you also need a slice or two of luck along the way.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.