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Rhys Williams must have known something we didn’t. A couple of weeks ago, Goal caught up with the Liverpool youngster for an exclusive wide-ranging chat. The 19-year-old was in good form.
Then we asked him about the players he looks up to. Who are the defenders he admires in the modern game? His answer was an interesting one, to say the least,
“There’s a lad at Preston now called Ben Davies,” Williams, a lifelong North End fan, told us. “He’s been at Preston all the way through, come through the academy.
“He’s been everywhere on loan – York, Fleetwood, Southport, Newport, Tranmere. Now he’s probably Preston’s best and most consistent player.
“It shows me that there’s a path through non-league, especially for defenders, where you have to go and learn the basics of the game. The bit on the ball, that can always come, you can always learn that later, but the basics, you have to have them.
“I look up to someone like Ben because he’s had the same path as me and now he’s doing really well in the Championship.”
Funny old game football, isn’t it?
A fortnight on, Williams and Davies are about to become team-mates, Liverpool having agreed a fee with Preston for the 25-year-old on Sunday. It’ll be a surprise signing, to say the least.
Liverpool have been linked to all kinds of names in the past few days, but few will have expected them to dip into the Championship for their centre-back solution. Davies, indeed, had been expected to join Celtic, either this week or in the summer, when he would have been out of contract.
Bournemouth had also been keen to sign him in a double-deal with Ben Pearson, while Burnley and Sheffield United had made enquiries. Davies and his representatives, though, felt those two teams’ style was ill-suited to his way of playing.
The idea of leaving Preston for Burnley, too, is not a smart one. As Williams explained to us in that interview, Lancashire rivalries burn bright.
So, remarkably, Davies is heading for Anfield instead. After 250 appearances in the fifth, fourth, third and second tiers of English football, he now gets his chance in the top-flight.
“He’s developed into one of the best defenders in the championship,” says ex-Liverpool forward Neil Mellor, who was a Preston player when Davies was emerging through the youth set-up. “He knows how to defend, he can sense danger. He is calm and composed on the ball and can pick a diagonal pass no problem.
"He’s a quiet lad and will need the support of the senior lads Hendo and Milner to help him settle and feel like he belongs there. £2 million is an absolute bargain. I have always believed he can play in the Prem, now we shall see if he can cope.”
What a story it is - the boy from Barrow-in-Furness, who grew up a stone’s throw away from the boyhood home of Liverpool legend Emlyn Hughes, pulling on the famous red shirt.From a Championship play-off push to a Premier League title race and a Champions League fight, and all in the blink of an eye.
Four years ago he was playing for Fleetwood in League One. The season before that he was in League Two with Newport, and before thatSouthport in the National League. He had a season with York and a month with Tranmere. He’s earned his stripes.
Paul Carden was his boss at Southport, and remembers Davies, who was 19 at the time, as a model professional.
“We were bottom of the Conference and we needed a centre-back,” he tells Goal. “I went to watch Everton’s Under-23s play Preston at our ground Haig Avenue. Preston lost 3-1 and Ben made a mistake for a goal, but he stood out with the way he played. He was good on the ball, he wanted to play.
“I was sat with Simon Grayson, the Preston manager, and his assistant Glyn Snodin and I asked about Ben. We ended up signing him on loan the next day.
“What a kid! He was a great lad, so eager to learn. He was always on to me ‘Paul, can I have the video of last night’s game?’ or ‘let’s see the clips of the striker I’m up against on Saturday’. He wasn’t afraid to ask for advice, and he took feedback on board. He wanted to do well.
“The lads knew from his first training session that he could play. When a lad comes down from higher up, you want them to impress you and he did straight away. He’s a very good footballer.
“On top of that he has personality. I remember one game at home which we lost badly, and he let a few experienced players have it in the dressing room afterwards. He wasn’t shy in saying his piece, which I loved.
"He didn’t want his name associated with a defeat like that. He cared. He was only here for a month but he was going to do everything he could to win for us.
“Preston took him back after about 10 or 12 games for us, and I don’t think he wanted to go because he was getting into a good rhythm, but he had a couple of other loan spells at Newport and Fleetwood and he’s gone on from there.
“I’m a Liverpool fan, and all fans are wanting Kalidou Koulibaly, but I think Ben could be another shrewd one. He’s different, left-footed, versatile. He can step into midfield like Matip does and start play.
“I know people will roll their eyes because he’s been in the lower leagues, but so what? That is he best place to get grounded and go and play. It will have done him the world of good.
“Just because he doesn’t cost millions and millions doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good player for Liverpool. Look at their current squad now, the likes of Milner, Henderson, Van Dijk, Robertson, they’ve all had to earn their stripes lower down.
“In terms of the FSG model, they rarely sign a player who decreases in value. Ben has cost peanuts and he has good experience, good grounding. He’s a good player and a rock-solid character. There are loads of positives to his signing.”
Liverpool, indeed, see Davies as a smart pick-up, a Ragnar Klavan-type signing according to club sources.
He is viewed as one of the best left-sided centre-backs in the Championship, good on the ball, calm and experienced, with the personality to handle such an unexpected change in circumstances. His versatility – he can play as a left-back as well as at centre-back - is also a plus.
The fee, Goal understands, is just £500,000 up front, with a further £1.1m ($1.5m)in add-ons relating mainly to first-team appearances and achievements. There is, for example, a payment for any England caps, as well as a 20% sell-on clause.
It would be unrealistic to expect a world-beater, of course. In a normal world, Davies would not have been on Liverpool’s radar - he knows that himself - but injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, as well as Fabinho, have forced the Reds to act.
The ongoing impact, financially-speaking, of the coronavirus pandemic, plus the fact they were looking for a player in January, meant their options were seriously limited.
It remains to be seen if Davies is the only arrival on deadline day. Goal understands that Liverpool were offered the chance to sign Duje Caleta-Car from Marseille over the weekend, and that they would have been keen on a loan-to-buy deal for the Croatian international.
However, Marseille’s inability to bring in a replacement on loan looks to have scuppered that, with the 24-year-old, a former team-mate of Naby Keita at Salzburg, expected to remain in France until the end of the season.