Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The is meticulously preserved, a series of saved and collated by a proud father.It charts almost every step on journey towards the big time, from first kicking a ball for and goalscoring exploits for and , to making his professional debut for at 16 and then becoming the most expensive teenager in football history when he joined Liverpool in a £250,000 deal shortly after turning 17.At her home in Stockport, his sister chuckles at some of the descriptions: “teenage wonder”, “soccer saviour”, “wonder waif”. She could never get her head around the idea that her younger brother was a football prodigy.To his family, he was always just “Our Wayne”. “A proper mummy’s boy,” says. “He never left his mum’s side except to go to school and play football.”As we leaf through the , the tone of the headlines changes: from “Whizz Kid Wayne” to “forgotten starlet” and “invisible man”, a player bedevilled by injuries, lost in the system at Liverpool, unable to break into their all-conquering team of the 1980s. Two separate headlines from that time ask, “Whatever happened to Baby Wayne?”, riffing on the title of a 1962 film starring and .What happened to Harrison was a tragedy — a career curtailed by injury, forcing him to retire at the age of 23, and then, ultimately, a life cut short.Injuries didn’t just wreck Harrison’s career; they damaged his life.After more than 20 operations on his knee, he ended up unable to work, living on disability benefits, his dreams shattered, a glorious future far behind him — “heartbroken”, says — before he died of pancreatic cancer on .News of Harrison’s death, at the age of 46, sent a brief tremor through English football.Tributes poured in for a player whose rare talent was matched only by his capacity for misfortune. An FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Oldham fell poignantly just over a week later, allowing both sets of fans and players to commemorate Harrison with a minute’s applause at . But then the ovation faded away and football forgot him for a second time.Ten years on, this feels like an opportune moment to remember Harrison and to tell his story in depth. Not just the dramatic rise, the record-breaking transfer, the injuries and the struggle to live up to expectations, but the growing pains of an ordinary boy who longed for the normal life his extraordinary talent had taken him away from — and who then, plunged back into normal life, his dreams shattered, was left lamenting the career he could have had.He was barely out of school.Harrison was a few weeks short of his 17th birthday when he made his Football League debut in , becoming the youngest first-team player in history. His strike partner , who went on to play for in the , recalls, “Wayne looked like a gust of wind could knock him over. But he was razor-sharp.”Harrison scored on his second league appearance, against on , and then in an tie against soon after. Scouts flocked to to watch him, but Liverpool had been on the case since he scored twice against them as pulled off a shock in an FA Youth Cup tie at just before Christmas.”Wayne was outstanding that night,” says former youth-team coach . “We beat Liverpool 4-3 and he murdered them. Liverpool had a well-known youth scout called and when we came off the pitch and went into the boot room, Tom wanted to know everything about Wayne.”Saunders took a trip to to watch Harrison again at the next opportunity. This time he had , Manchester United’s manager at the time, for company. Both were convinced the kid was worth a punt — particularly if there was a danger he would join their fiercest rivals. made a £25,000 offer there and then. turned it down. He raised the offer to £40,000. Again, said no. took counterpart out for a meal in the hope of twisting his arm.”And then while we were at dinner,” says, “Liverpool’s chairman, , rang the chairman at , , and told him it was £250,000 for Wayne and that I was out for dinner with at that moment so he would have to be quick. sanctioned the deal, and that’s how it was done. I always remind Joe I got him an extra £200,000 for Wayne — and I still picked up the bill for our meal!”Harrison’s subsequent struggles led some, including Liverpool’s former captain , to speculate that the club might have been the victim of a “sting” between and .
and say there was nothing of the sort. was very keen on Harrison but, under pressure to deliver ‘s first league title since 1967, he couldn’t afford to spend heavily on such a long-term prospect. , with the previous season’s League trophy and in the trophy cabinet and money in the bank, could afford a longer-term investment, particularly if the outlay helped them avoid a tax bill at the end of the financial year.While the size of the fee surprised , he felt Liverpool were getting a special player.”He was lightning,” the former and later manager says of Harrison. “He was very similar to . He always wanted to run in behind the defence and his finishing was exceptional. I thought he had a great chance of reaching the very top.”Wayne was the real thing. He really was.” Harrison with Liverpool manager after his move to (ITN)Amid considerable fanfare, Harrison signed on the dotted line at Liverpool, whose manager said he was the type of “special player” you hear about “perhaps once in 20 years”. Alongside , decked out in Liverpool hat and scarf, Harrison smiled awkwardly, looking like someone who can’t quite believe what is happening to them.The plan was to return to on loan for three months, keep playing first-team football, before moving to Liverpool permanently. “But we cut it short,” says. “The kid’s head, naturally, had been turned. He wanted to be at Liverpool and to get on with his career there.”Did he, though? Did Harrison really want to play for Liverpool?His sister thinks not. Long-term, yes, but not with his career still in its infancy.”He supported them and his bedroom was all decorated in Liverpool stuff, but I don’t think he wanted to go there when he did,” she says. “I don’t think he was ready for it. He just wanted to come home every day. He was a home bird, really. That was our Wayne.”This isn’t just the perspective of a big sister with no interest in football. Harrison said it explicitly in interviews at the time (“I never wanted to leave”) but ‘s financial situation had left him with little choice. He also told he didn’t “really fancy spending three years in Liverpool’s reserves”.That turned out to be an underestimation. By the end of his first full season at Liverpool, almost 18 months on from his big-money transfer, Harrison’s only taste of first-team football had come in a pre-season friendly at Crewe Alexandra. It was proving hard enough to establish himself in Liverpool’s reserves.On the face of it, that seemed entirely normal. For one thing, he was still only 18. For another, this was simply what Liverpool did in the 1980s. , , and had all joined as teenagers and spent at least 12 months in the reserves, learning the fabled Liverpool Way, before starting to feature regularly in the first team.But , who took over as reserve-team coach in 1986, had a few concerns. He clashed with Harrison, unable to get through to a player who drifted through training sessions.”For a couple of years, he stagnated,” , a former Liverpool captain and assistant manager, says. “He wasn’t cutting the mustard as we’d hoped. We tried everything — arm around the shoulder, the odd rollicking, all sorts, trying to do the best for him — and nothing worked.”Then…

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