Liverpool is in session as ‘everyone’ settles on the surprise best player,’

Billy Koumetio reveals all about training with the Liverpool first team, making his Reds debut, and playing Anfield

Billy Koumetio of Liverpool

Billy Koumetio of Liverpool (Image: Getty)Where were you the night Liverpool shocked the footballing world to beat Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield to book their place in the Champions League final?

Tuesday 7th May, 2019. You don’t need to be a Reds fan to remember that evening, as Gini Wijnaldum’s quick-fire brace after coming off the bench at half-time turned the game on its head against the stunned Catalans, before Divock Origi buried Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner taken quickly in front of the Kop.

Anfield erupted on its most famous night, and Liverpool youngster Billy Koumetio was there, just six months after moving to Merseyside and joining the Reds.

Still only 16, the Frenchman was chosen to be ball boy that night. And while he might not have played as decisive a role as academy team-mate Oakley Cannonier, who quickly threw the ball to Alexander-Arnold for Liverpool’s match-winning corner, it is a night Koumetio will never forget.

“When I think about this night, it is crazy. It was unbelievable,” he told the ECHO in an exclusive interview last season.

“A member of staff who isn’t working at the club anymore, Phil Roscoe, he was the one who decided who would be a ball boy for these kind of the games.

“Usually it’s the younger ones and my age was above that. I was like, “Me? Going to that game?!” I was shocked but said, “Okay, for sure I will go!”

“When I arrived there, seeing the atmosphere and everything, the players so close to me, seeing the intensity and hearing them talk on the pitch.

It was wow. And what a win, it will never be forgotten, in football in the world. Everybody knows it.

“After the game, we were there with the boys taking videos of the atmosphere and the reaction of the boys after winning this incredible game.

I will keep these memories for the rest of my life.”

Just five months later, Koumetio was in a Liverpool matchday squad at Anfield himself.

The 20-year-old was named on the bench for the Reds’ 5-5 draw with Arsenal in the League Cup in October 2019, as a young side progressed on penalties.

And while he did not make his debut that night, it made the Frenchman hungry for more.

“I was so young. My first time training with the first team was two days before this game (the 5-5 draw with Arsenal),” he recalled. “So I go there and I see all the players, I see Mily, I see Ox, I see Naby. I was a bit stressed!

“But it was a good training session. The following day, I was training again and there with another centre-back, Morgan Boyes.

The manager was explaining to us about how we would play. We were doing those things as he told us to go there, there, and there when talking about the tactics.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘I know that they need players.

And they might pick some of the young team. This training is like a game for me and I will give everything I can.’ I didn’t know what choice he would take but I would give everything to show that I am here and I want to play and be in the squad for this game.

“After the training session, Vitor (Matos) came to me and said, “Tomorrow, 9 o’clock.” I was like, “I don’t understand! 9 o’clock? What?” And then he told me I was in the squad and that he would send me the schedule. Wow, wow.

Mario Balotelli of Liverpool steps off the team coach as it arrives prior to kickoff during the FA Cup Third Round match between AFC Wimbledon and Liverpool at The Cherry Red Records Stadium

“I then sent that to my agent and to my family straight away. My agent came straight away, took his flight directly.

I was very happy, being there for the first time. Going to the hotel with the boys. I still remember that like it was yesterday. I loved it for sure.

“And it was a big game. One thing that shocked me was, obviously not all the players were there and there were a lot of young ones there, but the atmosphere was the same. The stadium was full.

“Seeing this support, wow, this club, every game the fans shock me. I learn new things game after game.

Wow, this is incredible. I was hearing the chanting and it was wow. I really enjoyed it.

“And we got a big win (on penalties) and I made this big run to Curtis Jones (who scored the winning penalty). I loved it for sure.”

Koumetio would make his Liverpool debut a year later, but in very different circumstances in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

He became the Reds’ youngest ever player in the Champions League when brought on in place of Fabinho at half-time away at Midtjylland in December 2020.

Despite impressing in pre-season and earning Jurgen Klopp’s praise in the process the previous, Koumetio still did not see his first team debut coming.

“I was on the bench. So was Curtis (Jones),” he said. “I know (Joel) Matip was there, Hendo (Jordan Henderson) was there – so a few senior players were there.

“I remember Andreas (Kornmayer) told me that I would warm up last. I didn’t understand at that time. ‘What does that mean? Am I going to play or what?’ I went to warm up, to be ready for any kind of circumstances.

“Hendo was saying to me, “I think you will play!” I was like, “Really? Nobody told me anything.” “I think you might play.”

“Okay, so now in my head I’m like I have to be prepared even more. It’s not that I wasn’t ready, but now I focused more.

“I remember Andreas running to me at half-time and saying, “Billy, now we have to be active more because now you are coming on!””

So what did Klopp say to Koumetio before handing the then 18-year-old his Liverpool debut, and was he aware that he broke a Reds record in the process?

“He (Klopp) was the same. He never put me under any pressure,” he said. “He was always the same, like in the other game at Anfield.

Put me under no pressure at all, whether it was in the friendly games (I’d played), it was always the same speech.

“No pressure at all, do the things that I can do. I know that he believes in my ability if he puts me there. He asks me to do them and I am able to do them.

“I was aware (that I became Liverpool’s youngest player in the CL). I was shocked that if I played, I would be this one. But before the game, I was not focussed on this. I was just focussed on the task the team had to do, that every player had to do in this game.

“I was not focused on any personal record, this is the last thing I would think about.

But I remember after the game Gini Wijnaldum put up a post saying, ‘Congratulations to Leighton Clarkson and congratulations to Billy Koumetio for becoming the youngest…’ So now I was more conscious of it!

“It was a big thing, having my name on a record for Liverpool. I was very proud of it for sure, but I knew I had to keep pushing and keep doing the things I can do the best.”

That appearance would prove to be Koumetio’s only first team outing in the 2020/21 campaign as Klopp instead turned to Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams when Liverpool were decimated by an injury centre-back crisis.

On the bench three times in the Premier League during the Reds’ season-ending 10-game unbeaten run that clinched Champions League football against the odds, Koumetio is well-aware he could have been turned to next had Liverpool suffered anymore injuries.

“In that season, I learned a lot. I learned that anything can happen,” he recalled. “It was a very difficult situation for them (the injured players) personally.

“Next thing, I quickly became a player who could soon play constantly. I was like, ‘Wow.’ Things can change really quickly. The thing is to be motivated and have big visions.

“‘Yes, this year I can do more games. I can play five games, I can play 10 games. Everything is possible in football.’ This is what I learned this year.

“Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips, what a year they did! What a year they did. I didn’t play but I still enjoyed it.”

Having played behind closed doors when making his Liverpool debut, Koumetio was able to experience a ‘proper’ Reds playing experience when handed his maiden start and Anfield outing against Leicester City in the League Cup in December 2021.

With Liverpool trailing 3-1 at half-time, the Frenchman was ultimately one of three young players withdrawn at the break as the Reds bounced back to win on penalties.

But that takes nothing away from the experience for Koumetio on a night, like that famous Barcelona win two and a half years earlier, that he will never forget.

“It was an achievement as a young one. But not just as a young one, I’m sure millions of players want to play there (at Anfield),” he said. “To experience this atmosphere. I believe it is the best in football.

“I was thinking, ‘This is a big game,’ but I still had to be focussed on the task that we had to do, what the manager asked us to do.

“Seeing the support during the game, even like the fans shouting, “Man on!”, it’s like they are on the pitch. You hear them in your ear. When you do something great, the way they clap, the way they support you and they encourage you.

“It was different from being in the stand and encouraging them. Now you play and hear the supporters encouraging you, it was a big feeling that I will never forget.

“It isn’t an easy thing to experience (to be substituted at half-time), not just as a young one but as any player. Everyone wants to play 90 minutes in a game.

“I respect any decision though. He is the manager, he knows more than me, more than us. That is the job, to make substitutions and change the tactics and everything.

“I didn’t say anything about it. We respect it, 100% for sure. He came to me and said it wasn’t about the way we played or I played.

The way I played with the ball was simple. Passing to the right and left was good, but he had to make changes and this was his decision.

“That’s what he said to me. I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I respect him 100%. And after that, it was great.”

That appearance against the Foxes remains Koumetio’s last for Liverpool, having joined newly-promoted Ligue 2 side USL Dunkerque on loan late last month following a half-season stint with Austria Vienna last year.

As a result, it remains to be seen if he’ll play for the Reds first team again.

Regardless, his five years at Anfield have coincided with the most successful spell in Liverpool’s history in the Premier League era.

Winning every trophy on offer to them, Klopp’s all-conquering side are a generation of legends.

Whatever the future holds for Koumetio, he has trained and played with these great Reds stars. As a youngster, such an experience is priceless.

But which of Klopp’s side have impressed the Frenchman most? Three players in particular stand out.

“The best player (in training) is very difficult! I don’t know, I would have to think for an hour about the best player!” he laughs.

“One thing I notice for sure, the first time I trained with the first team, I went back to the Under-18s afterwards and they asked me this question, who I found the best in training.

“I said (Adam) Lallana. Lallana for sure. Everybody who went up was saying Lallana when they came back.

It’s just his technique, the way he would never lose the ball. Never! It’s like the ball is attracted to his feet. It’s unbelievable for sure.”

“The forward who is the biggest headache is Bobby (Firmino)! Bobby is so difficult to defend. He can go any direction.

He can do any kind of pass. Sometimes he was doing things that you can not even imagine. He does something crazy and you are like, ‘Wow!’

“But the first one who shocked me the first time we trained, and I was like, one day I would like, obviously I want to train every day and be on the pitch but one day, just one day of my career, I would like to just sit and watch him train is Thiago Alcantara.

“Thiago is a different class. I love watching him, the way he plays and the way he trains hard. He is very beautiful to watch.

“Other than that, everybody plays very good in training and I love to watch everyone, but they are the ones who stand out.”

As a 16-year-old, just months after joining Liverpool, Koumetio watched on as the Reds’ destroyed Messi’s Barcelona and dreamed of playing at Anfield and being part of Klopp’s side.

Regardless of what comes next for the young Frenchman, he has already achieved exactly that and made memories that will last a lifetime.

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