What went wrong with Woodburn?

Ben Woodburn joined the Seasiders in October on a short-term loan, with the option to extend until the end of the season. Arriving from Liverpool, the fans’ reaction was overwhelmingly positive as the fans had been calling out for Critchley to lean on his Melwood connections to bring in some Premier League talent. After spending the previous season on loan at Oxford United, the 21-year-old was expected to kick-on and show a clear progression and truly make an impact at League One level. However, it did not quite work out as both parties planned, with Woodburn today returning to his parent club after three starts and seven sub appearances across the three-month spell.

Don’t Believe The Hype
Through no fault of his own, Ben Woodburn’s stock soared on the evening of 29th November 2016, as he became Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer, bettering the record of Michael Owen by 98 days. Just under a year later, he scored on his international debut, becoming the second youngest ever scorer for Wales behind Gareth Bale.

These types of accolades are not achieved without showing an extreme level of talent and hard work. Unfortunately, as we have seen with various British talents over the past 20 years, there is no stronger curse than being described as ‘the next‘. Whether it being David Bentley touted as the next Beckham, Ravel Morrison being the next Gazza or any of the 15 next Messi’s, setting the bar so high rarely ends well. It can’t have been easy for Woodburn then, who Jamie Carragher once compared to Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, to feel the weight of expectations placed on him by both Liverpool and Wales’ fans.

Since the debut goal against Leeds United, it is fair to say Ben’s career has not hit the heights many anticipated, despite the fact he is still only 21. A failed loan move to Wilder’s Sheffield United in 2018 was swiftly followed by another loan to Oxford. Whilst both moves were impacted by injury, Woodburn only managed to make 18 appearances over the two seasons, scoring 1 goal. The Oxford loan however did show glimpses of what Woodburn could offer, with Oxford supporters calling for the club to re-sign the Welshman on loan in the summer.

It was therefore considered a relative coup when the Seasiders managed to secure the signature back in October. He is clearly well-thought of at Melwood, as Critchley would never have signed somebody considered not good enough for this level of football. Unfortunately for both parties, the move will be considered another failure for Woodburn as he failed to meet the required standard in both a starting role and when trying to impact games from the bench.

Woodburn’s Blackpool Cameo
Ben Woodburn appeared in 10 matches for the Pool, starting just three times. Across these outings, he averaged 33 minutes per game on the field. Ultimately, the stats make for fairly grim reading, with no attacking output noted in any of these appearances, in terms of goals and assists – though that may have changed on Saturday when he burst through and was set to lay the ball on a plate for Jerry Yates before he was hauled down by Reece Burke. In total, he only registered three shots in his entire spell at Blackpool. Bluntly, this return has not been good enough for us to challenge the top six.

The obvious argument is that the player needed a run of games in the team, and that wasn’t provided by Critchley. However, Woodburn did start the first two games immediately after he joined the club.

Blackpool need stronger options in the forward areas this window. While CJ Hamilton, Keshi Anderson, Jerry Yates and Gary Madine have largely been great for us, and Sullay Kaikai has been a consistent starter, our options from the bench haven’t had enough to challenge from the bench. Dan Kemp was one option, who has now gone permanently to Leyton Orient, while Keshi has been ruled out for the rest of the season. Woodburn falls into the same category as Bez Lubala and Oliver Sarkic in that we need better.

Ultimately, given Woodburn’s reportedly high wage, the club has made the decision that he’s not capable of driving us towards those play-off places and there is probably better out there who we’ll try to bring in this window.

That’s not to suggest Woodburn doesn’t have a decent future in the game – the talent is clearly there, but he needs to find that level of consistency that typically all young players struggle with. That comes from playing games regularly, and an average of 33 minutes over 10 games when we’re nearly half way through a season isn’t enough for him, us or his parent club.

What lies ahead..
Every footballer’s career is different, peaking at different ages, taking various trajectories, and holding their bespoke memorable moments. Ironically, Owen is one who firmly believes he was in his peak at an incredibly young age, as he never recovered from the various hamstring injuries he suffered, initially at just 19.

After watching Woodburn play for the previous two months, it is extremely difficult to see how the player can carve together a career at Liverpool at this stage – his contract is up in the summer and it’s likely he will be looking for a permanent move at his next club. Whilst the talent is unquestionably there, it is difficult to see any progression in the player since his debut in 2016. You would imagine a further loan move, to another League One club or even a League Two club will follow, where the player really needs a string together a run of positive performances to get his career back on track. Off the performances Blackpool fans were exposed too, you would expect a career within the lower leagues to follow but we’ve seen it before when players show the desire and hunger to reach a higher level as they mature.

There are various players who will still be living off their moments. Moments that suggest a career at the top level of the game beckons. One that weirdly sticks in my mind is Neil Mellor’s volley against Arsenal in 2004, or Federico Macheda’s goal in 2009 (the next Ronaldo). Blackpool’s own Matty Kay suffered from making his debut at the age of 16 in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Unfortunately, at the moment, it appears Woodburn may ultimately fall to the same sword.

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