The alumni project run by Liverpool FC’s Academy keeps in contact and supports those who have been part of the Kirkby set-up and departed in years gone by.
As part of the scheme – run by Phil Roscoe, the Academy’s head of player care – a regular newsletter is distributed featuring an interview with a former player to catch up on their career.
We recently caught up with full-back Ryan McLaughlin, who was a real favourite among Academy regulars during his time at Kirkby.
Ryan McLaughlin has had more ups and downs than most in his football career, but he’s never far away from a laugh or a joke.
“Gary Bowyer signed me for Blackpool and then resigned five days later – I’m not sure if it was what he’d seen from me at training!” he quips.
At 26, the Northern Irishman should have plenty more years of football – and laughs – ahead of him.
A tough, energetic full-back, he is currently finalising a move to a new club as a free agent after leaving Rochdale at the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
It is almost 10 years since McLaughlin made the switch across the Irish Sea to join Liverpool as a 16-year-old.
While he came agonisingly close to a competitive first-team debut – he played twice for Brendan Rodgers in a pre-season tour of the USA – he has no regrets about his time at Kirkby and Melwood.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says, with absolute certainty. “Some people say if I’d gone for a lower Premier League team I might have got more opportunities, but they were there at Liverpool, too.
“The people, the staff, the coaches were all unbelievable with me and I don’t think I’d have had the career I’ve even had now without them.”
It was happy circumstance which brought the Belfast boy across the water to try to forge a professional career.
He remembers: “Liverpool had a scout, Clifford Ferguson, he was watching me for two years, I didn’t even know about it. Then Kenny Dalglish – before he came back as manager – and Frank McParland were watching Raheem [Sterling] playing for England against Northern Ireland in the Victory Shield.
“I was playing and they basically said they wanted to sign me. It was between Liverpool and Manchester City.”
He continues: “I was at a team called Lisburn Youth just outside Belfast. They were a very good club and a mixed club, Catholic and Protestant – I don’t think I’d met a Protestant until then! I found it really easy and by the age of 11 many of them were my best friends.
“Scouts used to come and watch because a lot of players had come from the club, like Aaron Hughes and David Healy. My brother Conor was there, too – he’s at Sunderland now. A lot of the Northern Ireland international team came from there.
“I stayed at home to do my GCSEs and needed a club for a year. So I went to Glenavon for a year and they were brilliant with me.”
When he did move to Liverpool in the summer of 2011, homesickness set in for the self-confessed ‘home boy’.
“Mum and dad came over with me and I was wanting to go home with them,” he adds. “But the likes of Phil Roscoe looked after me really well and I settled in within two or three weeks. I’ve felt like an adopted Scouser ever since.”
House parents Dave and Tina became a ‘second family’ where he lived alongside his best friend from the Reds, Kristoffer Peterson.
“All the people at the club were brilliant,” he says. “It was a family atmosphere and I’ve been back since and it hasn’t changed. The coaching we got was the best you could get, which helped you settle in because you felt you were improving every day.”
McLaughlin swiftly found himself playing in some big games, especially in the NextGen series in Europe.
“Jon Flanagan went up to the first team under Kenny and I moved quite quickly up to the reserves,” he details. “Rodolfo [Borrell] was the manager and I ended up clicking with Conor Coady, who helped me settle with them. I loved it. It was mostly an U19 group.
“I did quite well and got offered another contract. I went from playing school football with Glenavon to playing in the youth Champions League against these big clubs like Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund. It was quite crazy but I got more relaxed and confident in myself.
“I remember playing against Arsenal and having a decent game against Serge Gnabry – though he did score a worldie that day, too! – and then you look at him now at Bayern Munich.
“Then there’s the players you played with, the likes of Suso, Conor Coady, Raheem Sterling and what they’ve gone on to do is incredible. It’s a hard road. There’s so many things that can go against you.
“You see a lot of people making excuses for why they didn’t make it. Sometimes you might need a bit of luck but those three for instance, yes, there’s talent first but look at the hard work and how good their attitudes were.
“Raheem got a bad press but not anymore because people realise what a good professional he is. Conor Coady the same. Suso is so talented it’s ridiculous, so he was always going to make it as well.”
The arrival of Rodgers saw McLaughlin head off on the club’s USA pre-season tour in 2012, where he made his senior debut marking a certain Francesco Totti.
“That was incredible,” he relives. “I remember Alex [Inglethorpe] saying to me Brendan wanted me to improve my passing and I might get a chance with the first team. But I was sat there looking at Glen Johnson thinking, ‘What?’, doubting myself.
“Alex became the U21s manager that season and he was unbelievable with us. Working on strengths and weaknesses. He had been saying to me about defending the back post and I was thinking, ‘Why do I need to do that? We have the ball most of the time. I basically should be playing as a winger.’
“We worked on it after training sessions, heading crosses away. I went into Barnsley in the Championship on loan in the January in a relegation fight. That work helped me so much. I ended up having a really good loan and they wanted me to go back.”
If McLaughlin could change anything about his Reds career it would be what happened next, as he feels he turned away some good opportunities.
“After that I was too picky with my loans,” he admits. “It was probably one of my biggest mistakes.
“Liverpool were saying these teams had come in and I was saying, ‘I think I should be going to a better team.’ I should have just gone. Alex and Michael Beale were right.
“You look at Rhys Williams going out to Kidderminster. That set him up to play for the first team and end up in the Champions League. My advice would be to listen to the coaches, who deserve a lot of credit for that.
“I felt like I missed a season doing that, just playing U21s. I think I could have gone to Rotherham but I wasn’t keen. Sometimes when you’re in that bubble at Liverpool, you don’t realise there’s a world outside.”
When he did finally make another move, it was north to Aberdeen in the Scottish Premiership.
He adds: “I was in my last year at Liverpool. Alex was telling me Toronto were on the phone and now I’d jump at something like that but then I was thinking, ‘It’s the other side of the world.’ Motherwell were also interested.
“That year I had quite a few niggly muscular injuries, which I had a lot during my Liverpool career – though I don’t like using that as an excuse for not pushing on the way I’d hoped.
“One of my good friends, Niall McGinn, was at Aberdeen and he said they were selling their right-back and I should come up. But he ended up staying and I only got five or six games.
“Jürgen [Klopp] then came in and I was desperate to get in front of him. I was begging the Aberdeen manager to let me come back as I felt I wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip.
“I went back, played a few games in front of him and thought I did well. But it’s quite hard when you’re 20, 21. You have to start looking for a career elsewhere.”
When he did leave the club in 2016, it was in a summer which could have gone very differently.
He says: “I ended up with really bad luck – I did my ankle ligaments on the front pitch in a training session near the end of the year.
“That day I was in my apartment and Michael O’Neill rang me to tell me I was going to the Euros with Northern Ireland! I was waiting on a scan and ended up out for three months.”
McLaughlin did go to France but only to watch his brother Conor, who was first-choice right-back in a tournament which was a huge adventure for the Green and White Army.
In club football, a coach he knew well, Stephen Robinson, persuaded him to come and sign for Oldham.
Two years, more than 60 appearances and three goals followed before that move to Blackpool and Bowyer’s swift departure, although he made 11 appearances for the Seasiders.
By the January he’d moved to Rochdale in League One, though last year was interrupted by a frustrating plantar fasciitis foot injury.
“I think Jordan Henderson had it too,” he says. “It was as if someone was stabbing you in the foot. I went to see Andy Renshaw, the old LFC physio, and he sorted me out. Plus staying off it for the lockdown really helped. Apart from that, my injuries have been OK this year.
“I haven’t played as many games as I’d have liked to play due to injuries. But I’ve seen a lot, qualified with the Northern Ireland squads for the Euros, been in changing rooms for some big games. I’ve worked with some amazing pros and know how to do things right.
“I remember [Jamie] Carragher bursting my eardrums shouting after just an hour at Melwood! Conor Coady when he was 17 or 18, he didn’t shut up. I remember we were beating Inter Milan 4-1 and he was screaming at us to do everything right.”
Still with aspirations to play at a higher level, he remains in touch with many of his old Academy friends.
McLaughlin reveals: “I play Call of Duty with Raheem. I still speak with Jordan Williams. I was on holiday with Harry Wilson last summer.”
He is also busy with his boxing podcast, Brawl Boxing, where he shares his love of the sport with close friends and some big-name guests, who have already included the likes of Michael Conlan, Carl Frampton, Billy Joe Saunders, Matchroom CEO Frank Smith, and Johnny Nelson from Sky Sports.
And while he may have left Liverpool the club, he’s still firmly rooted in Liverpool the city.
He finishes: “I’m still in the same apartment building I was in when I was at Liverpool. I fell in love with the city and the people. If I stay in England, it’ll be in Liverpool.
“But you can’t live in the past, you’ve got to be proud of what you’ve done. For a kid from Belfast, I played in two senior friendly appearances. Looking back, maybe I could have achieved more but it’s just down to me.
“I’ll always remember marking Totti anyway! I played the first half and I thought, ‘I can’t swap shirts at half-time.’ I was scared of getting shouted at, up with the first team.
“I remember sitting in the changing room talking to Mike Marsh and Brendan, and then James Bond [LFC fan Daniel Craig] is walking round shaking everyone’s hand!
“A couple of weeks earlier I’m playing five-a-side with my mates in Belfast. The experience I had I wouldn’t change. I really enjoy looking back on it.”