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Reunited: Liverpool prodigy Harvey Elliott meets the coach who helped make his meteoric rise possible
In the first episode of our newest series and in his first major interview, Liverpool’s young midfielder Harvey Elliott is surprised by one of the youth coaches who helped him on his journey.
Harvey Elliott is living his boyhood dream at Liverpool.
After returning from a productive loan spell at Blackburn Rovers, he has forced his way into Jurgen Klopp’s plans. The teenage winger has adjusted brilliantly to a new role in midfield and produced a dazzling full Premier League debut in Saturday’s victory over Burnley.
The Athletic and BT Sport have joined forces to reunite Elliott with one of the youth coaches who helped him on his journey to Anfield. Dan Thomas, who is now Fulham’s assistant head of player development, worked with Elliott at the London club from the age of 12 to 16.
Elliott’s debt of gratitude was clear as they talked scoring from the halfway line, employing a sprint coach, handling the physicality of senior football, learning from Mohamed Salah and adapting to that positional change.
Here’s the best of their conversation with The Athletic’s James Pearce:
Dan Thomas: I can clearly remember the first session you had with us after coming on trial from QPR when you were 12. We had to make a decision as there was a bit of compensation involved. I was actually using a drill that I’d stolen off Pep Lijnders from a conference he had presented for the Welsh FA.
It was a tight little possession game with Harvey in the middle. It was a case of, “OK, let’s see what this kid has got”. I was struck by how good he was playing off one touch, flicking things around the corner.
He wasn’t big, strong or powerful but very clever with good awareness. He wasn’t a massive talent punching you in the face at that point but you could see he had a lot of technical ability.
Harvey Elliott: Pep still does that drill with us now!
Thomas: Well, there you go, what amazing foresight that was from me then, to do that drill all those years ago!
Elliott: I’m not just saying it because he’s here but Dan was one of my favourite coaches. He always took the time to help me and I learned a lot from him. He put me on the pathway to becoming who I am today. I’m very thankful for what Dan and everyone at Fulham did for me.
Thomas: That’s very kind of you to say but the fact is you made yourself who you are today. I just helped a little bit. Do you remember that first game in Fulham’s new indoor dome? It was nine-a-side, I think it was against QPR.
Elliott: Did I score from the halfway line?
Thomas: Yeah, Harvey took the kick-off and put it straight in the goal. Spotted the keeper off his line, smashed it straight over his head. Brilliant. There were “wow” moments like that when you think “OK…”.
He also came back from Holland with the player of the tournament award. When you’ve got someone who consistently gives you those “wow” moments in training and carries that into games at 15 then you know he’s got a very good chance. What else do you remember about those early years?
Elliott: Not much to be honest! Just enjoying my football. That’s all it was about when I was younger. Doing everything I could to improve.
Thomas: How did you enjoy your time at Coombe School?
Elliott: Yeah I’ve got good memories of that place. I still keep in touch with all the boys.
Thomas: Can you remember that Under-15 Floodlit Cup final when we got smacked by Arsenal?
Elliott: Was it 5-1? That wasn’t one of my best performances…
Thomas: In my mind, we lost 5-1 but when I knew I was coming up here today I decided to watch the game back on Hudl. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to delete it so it’s still there. We actually lost 6-3.
We pulled it around a bit having been 4-0 down after 20 minutes in the cup final on our home ground. We had high hopes that year. In my mind, we got destroyed by Bukayo Saka on the left wing going past Cody (Drameh) too many times. But when I watched it back last night, Saka was actually playing left-back for them. Who was our right winger who didn’t track him?
Elliott: I’d get slaughtered today for that, wouldn’t I? That day was a tough lesson. Saka was one of the top boys in England at that age group and you could tell that he was going to become a very good player. He was the go-to man in that Arsenal team. He was a bit older than me.
Thomas: Yeah, to be fair, you were playing up a year so we’ll let you off.
Elliott: I still should have tracked him! Didn’t I turn up in a Ronaldo Real Madrid kit for training once? One of the coaches told me to go and get changed.
Thomas: It was certainly better than turning up in a Chelsea kit. We’ve had boys do that over the years. I think it was towards the end of your Under-13 year there were some concerns internally over whether you had the electric pace required to be a winger at the highest level.
We also talked about it with your dad, Scott. That summer you went away and worked with your own speed coach doing one-to-one sessions. When you came back at the start of the under-14 year the reaction among the staff was, “Wow, he’s stolen a yard of pace from somewhere. Where has he got that from?”
Great credit to Harvey and Scott. Something was identified to them as a potential weakness and they went and did something about it. It was a lesson for me too. You think someone either has pace or not but Harvey proved you can make big improvements in terms of your speed if you are willing to really put the work in.
Harvey, your willingness to put in that extra work has helped you to get to where you are. You weren’t happy just being a good player, a good winger. You could see what you needed to get better at and addressed it.
Elliott: Even to this day I’m not as quick as I’d like to be. Throughout the years I was never the biggest physically but I just tried with my dad to work on things that would help me get further in my career.
Things like not getting caught on the ball, not giving the bigger boys the chance to brush me off it. I had to make myself think quicker, do things a second or two earlier.
Still to this day I’m doing sprint training and trying to give myself that few extra yards to help me in games. There are always things you need to work on and improve on as a footballer. You can never be happy with what you are, you always need to push yourself. I still need to improve my speed, especially when you look at players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Thomas: Have you not beaten them in any races yet?
Elliott: I try but they’re too quick! The first few training sessions after I first arrived at Liverpool was like, “Woah, I am actually training with these guys.” Going from watching them live on TV to seeing them in person and training alongside them, you really realise what a presence they bring.
They are world-class players but we’re all here to fight for a place in the team. We’re all competing for the same thing. Now I look upon them as my competition. I learn a lot from them. They are great inspirations to kids around the world — and to me too — with what they have been through and what they’ve achieved. I want to achieve big things like they have.
Thomas: Where some kids maybe aren’t that bothered about watching football in their spare time, Harvey could always talk about it all day. We knew he was a big Liverpool fan. We’d hear about it when he had been up to Anfield to watch the Champions League games. Who helped you the most when you first moved up?
Elliott: Hendo (Jordan Henderson) helped me the most but to be fair they all helped me out and made me feel very welcome. The city feels like home.
Thomas: Have you met any Everton fans?
Elliott: I have and they’ve been fine. The rivalry is intense on the field but off it, everyone around the city is so friendly when I go to restaurants.
Thomas: It’s a great city but what about this weather?! Middle of August and I’ve got my jacket on. It’s 25 degrees down in London!
Elliott: A sunny day here is like winning the lottery! But to be fair this is a lot better than a couple of days ago when we were training in the wind and rain.
Thomas: It’s been interesting watching you now on the right side of midfield. We always saw you as a multi-functional attacker who could play off either wing, as a No 10 or a false No 9. We tried to give you that variety.
Your best position was always coming in off the right onto your left foot. We never really played you in that deeper position. How have you found that adaptation?
Elliott: It’s what players need in their game, being able to adapt to different positions. It gives me more of a chance of getting into the team. It’s been a challenge to adapt. There’s different positioning required for example when either we or the opposition are playing out from the back.
It’s a case of getting your head around knowing where you need to be, how and when you need to press, knowing who you are needing to deal with on their team. I’m enjoying playing somewhere else. It’s nice because you get on the ball a lot.
Thomas: Should we have played you there when you were 13? I feel like we failed you!
Elliott: No, not at all. I’m happy to play wherever I’m told to play. Enjoying my football is all that matters and I feel comfortable there
Thomas: Looking at our team from that Floodlit Cup final, it’s good to see that a lot of the boys have really kicked on. Cody (Drameh) is at Leeds, Fabio (Carvalho) is doing really well in our first team, Sylvester (Jasper) has also played first team, Mika (Biereth) is now at Arsenal, Rafael (Garcia) is at Everton. Did that help you being around so many good players?
Elliott: Definitely. Fulham’s academy has a great record of bringing through players when you look at Ryan and Steven Sess (Sessegnon). So many good players have come through there.
To be in that team with them with the quality we had, I couldn’t have wished for more. I sent Fab a few messages congratulating him on his goals. We all keep in touch. I want to see them do well on their journeys and fulfil all their dreams and get to the top.
Thomas: You were playing for the under-18s at the age of 14 and training with the first team at 15…
Elliott: Playing up age groups helped me a lot in terms of coping with the physical side, especially at first-team level. Even now it’s about staying one step ahead so I’m not getting absolutely clattered.
As a young kid going and playing in the park with my mates, we’d always play against kids two or three years older than us. It was important to play up and get used to getting knocked around. You’ve got to be able to handle that.
Thomas: You were always good at manipulating the ball to stay out of the real physical battles and clever at finding space. Your decision-making improved too. If you were up against a full-back who was quicker and stronger, you’d try to find different spaces and come inside to find passes rather than trying to dribble past him.
When you got called up to train with the first team at 15, it was down to you to prove to the manager that you deserved to play and you did that. You made your first-team debut against Millwall (in the Carabao Cup at the age of 15 years and 174 days, Elliott became Fulham’s youngest ever first-team player).
The following morning you were back in school and that afternoon you were part of the training session with the other 20 to 30 boys aged 12 to 16 in the full-time programme. On a Wednesday afternoon, we used to just throw a ball in and let you boys play.
Elliott: It was like the Royal Rumble!
Thomas: It would have been easy for you to say you were a bit tired, you got home late from Millwall, you didn’t have the energy. That says a lot that you were in school and then you wanted to train. A lot of kids who played for the first team the night before would have asked, “Why am I training with these 12-year-olds?”
You set a great example for the other boys. There was no hint of arrogance. It was great for them to see that mentality you have and your enthusiasm for the game. We talk about the three Hs at Fulham — honesty, humility and hard work. We try to instil them in the boys and you epitomise those values.
Elliott: I always enjoyed every training session and every game, whether it was with the first team or the boys at school. There’s no better job than playing football.
Thomas: Some lads who play up don’t want to go back to their own age level, they think they’ve left that behind. But I remember you played for the under-16s after you’d played for the first team. There wasn’t an under-18s or under-23s game so you played for the under-16s against Chelsea. Their boys were out to put a stamp on you that day.
Elliott: Yeah, I remember it clearly.
Thomas: There was an issue with your top knot!
Elliott: Yeah, someone decided to grab it. It’s all part of football. It’s not a problem with the way my hair is now. Some of the boys at Liverpool were getting on my case about the top knot. It was time to get it cut. I think if I didn’t get it done, it might have got done for me! Now I’m feeling fresh and it’s all good.
Going back to what you were saying before, I’m enjoying my football now more than ever. To be privileged enough to be at a club like Liverpool and to play with these players is such an amazing learning curve for me. It’s something I’m so grateful for.
Thomas: How was the experience at Blackburn?
Elliott: It was so good. It was nice to go out on loan and play in a tough league every three or four days. Play, rest, recover, go again. To come away with 41 league appearances, credit to both Blackburn and Liverpool for giving me that platform to go and show what I could do. I’m very grateful to Blackburn for giving me that experience which I’ll always look back on as a real positive in my career.
Thomas: Whenever we had a meeting at Fulham, your dad was always asking us whether you were working hard enough. Your dad kept your feet on the ground. You never got carried away with your success.
You always wanted to go into the dome with a bag of balls and work on something. That desire to always get better is crucial. I love your humility too. One of your old youth coaches at Fulham, Keith Stiles, retired this summer after 17 years at the club. I sent a message out to 20 to 30 kids who had gone on, asking them to send a video message so we could put together a montage to give to Keith for his retirement.
The first one that came back was from Harvey. That tells you a lot about the boy that he took the time to say thank you. He remembers where he’s come from and appreciate the people who have helped him.
Elliott: It’s something that my dad and I speak about a lot. No matter how far you get, you should never forget about where you’ve come from. I’m thankful for everyone who gave me the platform and the coaching to get me to where I am today.
Keith was a great coach and a great guy who helped me a lot. You need to remember those people who have brought you up and trained you. If they need anything then I’m there for them.
Thomas: I’ve got you in my fantasy team. At £5.5 million you were a bit expensive but I thought let’s stick him in, let’s give him a game.
Elliott: I don’t do it myself but some of my friends do. A few of them have put me in. I need to get some goals and assists for them.
Thomas: Come on then, I was always hammering you about your right foot or your lack of pace, give me some advice. What could I have done better as a coach?
Elliott: You could have played me as the No 10, you could have made me captain and you could have put me on penalties!
Thomas: Oh yeah, pens was always an issue. We got there in the end with the pens.
Elliott: Everyone wanted to take them.
Thomas: It’s mixed emotions for me. As an employee of Fulham, I wanted to sit in my seat at Craven Cottage and watch Harvey score and deliver for our first team, but we had to accept he’s a massive Liverpool fan.
It’s a big step up and he’s living his boyhood dream. The bus sometimes only comes once and if you don’t get on it, you miss it. No one at Fulham begrudges him for taking the opportunity that was presented to him by Liverpool.
In terms of the future, I don’t think there’s a ceiling given his work ethic and his ability. Jurgen Klopp, Pep and the staff at Liverpool will guide him to where he needs to get to. He’s in a great place surrounded by top players and coaches.
As long as he keeps his head down and doesn’t get distracted by any of the nonsense young players can get distracted by, I’m sure he will go on to do great things. Harvey, we’re very proud of you and how well you’re doing. A lot of people asked me to pass on their best wishes. Good luck, mate.
Elliott: Thanks for everything, Dan. I really appreciate it.