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Liverpool starlet Rhys Williams was bullied, concussed and given a broken nose in non-league

Liverpool’s young defender Rhys Williams had a brutal introduction to men’s football during his season-long loan at Kidderminster Harriers, but it was the making of him, according to the man who coached him in non-league football.

Russ Penn, who was assistant manager with the Harriers last season while Williams, 19, was on loan with the West Midlands outfit in National League North, describes a baptism of fire for the Preston-born youngster, whom he calls ‘baby face’.

Penn is stunned that just six months since he left the Aggborough Stadium, Williams is playing for Liverpool in the Champions League, first for a brief cameo at Ajax and then for an hour at Anfield on Tuesday after replacing the injured Brazilian Fabinho in their 2-0 win against FC Midtjylland in Group D.

Rhys Williams impressed during the Champions League game against FC Midtjylland but he learned the physical side of the game in National League North with Kidderminster Harriers

Williams spent last season with Kidderminster Harriers and he developed his physicality

Williams spent last season with Kidderminster Harriers and he developed his physicality

Jurgen Klopp has led the plaudits for the centre back, with Liverpool stars Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Diogo Jota and Andy Robertson chiming in on Instagram.

And whatever awaits Williams, who may now be expected to form part of the Reds central defensive pairing during Fabinho’s absence with a hamstring injury and Virgil van Dijk’s long-term injury, it’ll be nothing like what hit him in the lower leagues.

‘When he walked through the door, a six-foot five-inch baby face, I thought this could make you or break you,’ said Penn, now manager at Kidderminster.

And the Harriers’ boss admits Williams had a ‘dodgy first six weeks’ as he struggled to come to terms with the speed and physicality of the game.

Kidderminster Harriers manager Russell Penn is full of praise for centre back Williams

Kidderminster Harriers manager Russell Penn is full of praise for centre back Williams

‘He conceded a couple of soft goals, he was getting bullied, he was always on the floor,’ said the former midfielder, who has 500 games in League Two under his belt. 

‘He found it hard to get up to speed. It is so much different to U23 football.’

Kidderminster’s unforgiving website documented Williams’ struggles. He was blamed for being ‘caught out by a long ball’ with four minutes to go on his debut against Leamington, which led to the equaliser in a 2-2 draw.

A week later he was ‘knocked off the ball far too easily’ as Gloucester City drew level on their way to a 3-2 win at Kidderminster.

Fabinho - who is standing in for Virgil van Dijk - was taken off around the half-hour mark

Fabinho – who is standing in for Virgil van Dijk – was taken off around the half-hour mark

‘After the first three games we were thinking “do we take him out and give him a breather or hope he learns from his mistakes”. We left him in and he did.’

It must have all felt a far cry from the relatively pampered surroundings of Liverpool’s academy at Kirby and the senior training facilities at Melwood.

But Williams embraced it, staying in the players’ house for the duration of his stay and seeing his mum and dad at weekends, as they travelled to every game, home and away.

Williams came off the bench to replace Fabinho and he put in an assured performance

 Williams came off the bench to replace Fabinho and he put in an assured performance

Williams technical ability was praised by coaches at Kidderminster Harriers

Williams technical ability was praised by coaches at Kidderminster Harriers

Penn, who played for York City, Burton Albion, Wrexham and Cheltenham Town among others believes the experience was a huge help to Williams, who had the technical ability and stature, but lacked the physical presence in his early says at the Aggborough Stadium.

The watershed moment came away to Darlington. 

It was a five-hour journey on the coach there and back. It was a tight game at the Darlington Arena, which the Harriers lost 1-0 with Williams taken out in the build up to the goal by a brutal blow to his face.

‘When he got knocked out at Darlington, he was sat in the dressing room, his nose was across his face,’ recalled Penn. ‘The lads were laughing. This is National League North. Welcome to the real world. But he dusted himself off and cracked on.’

‘They need to be knocked about a bit. They need to learn the physical side of the game. Centre forwards will leave an elbow in.

‘With us he was concussed, he broke his nose, he did get knocked about and then he got sent off at Brackley.’

The Harriers website described Williams dismissal as a ‘needless, reckless challenge’, but at least the youngster was toughening up.

Life in National League North demanded a toughness that will stand youngster in good stead

Life in National League North demanded a toughness that will stand youngster in good stead

Penn and his coaches knew Williams already had fantastic technical ability, so they worked with him on the physical side of defending, being strong, timing jumps for headers, being ready for critical moments in the game. 

And they were hugely impressed by his commitment and progress during the 42 games he played for Kidderminster.

‘You have to learn quick. The last six months he was with us we saw a really composed, towering centre half. Everyone was asking about him,’ said Penn.

‘He was the best loan spell we have had at the club. It’s great for us. He gave 100% to Kidderminster. And I like to think wherever he goes he will have learned something with us.

Jurgen Klopp (left) praised Williams' (right) performance after the game against FC Midtjylland

Jurgen Klopp (left) praised Williams’ (right) performance after the game against FC Midtjylland

Kidderminster tried to bring Williams back on loan this season, but Liverpool wanted to keep the youngster in their senior squad.

‘It’s not a surprise we could not get him back,’ laughed Penn. ‘We enquired about him coming back, but instead he was going to Ajax away.’

Liverpool watched Williams at Kidderminster every other week. They had agreed to the loan because Academy Director Alex Ingelthorpe and Julian Ward, Liverpool’s loan and pathways manager, wanted him to have a different football experience in his education.

They certainly achieved that and the pair were so impressed by Williams’ appetite to learn he was rewarded with a new five-year deal at Anfield this summer. 

Klopp has turned to Williams, the 19-year-old, during their current injury crisis in his defence

Klopp has turned to Williams, the 19-year-old, during their current injury crisis in his defence

Liverpool now face a packed schedule of Premier League and Champions League fixtures with only one fit first-choice centre back in Joe Gomez, until the transfer window opens in January.

The Reds could push midfielders Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum into action in the back line.

However, given Williams’ performance against the Danes and his appearance against Ajax, as well as Lincoln City and Arsenal in the Carabao Cup, he could be seen as a viable option.

Liverpool starlet Rhys Williams praised by senior colleagues 

James Milner posted on Instagram to praise Rhys Williams' performance

James Milner posted on Instagram to praise Rhys Williams’ performance

Liverpool’s young centre-back Rhys Williams has been praised by his senior colleagues following his assured performance in the Champions League encounter with FC Midtjylland. 

Williams took to Instagram to celebrate his appearance against the Danes, in which he did not put a foot wrong.

He posted saying, ‘Delighted to Make Another Champions League Appearance. Great Performance from The Boys, 3 Points and A Clean Sheet to Go with It’.

Goal scorer Diogo Jota was among the first to reply saying ‘Big man,’ accompanied with a clapping emoji.

Andy Robertson joined in with ‘Love it big man’ while Xherdan Shaqiri said: ‘Well done big lad.’

Jordan Henderson, Curtis Jones and centre-back partner Joe Gomez all showed their appreciation.

James Milner mentioned Williams in his own Instagram post, saying: ‘Missed the twelfth man at times tonight, but most important thing was to get the 3 points. Great performance from @rhyswilliams4 when he came on.’ And his comments were applauded by Reds’ legend Ian Rush.

Diogo Jota (left) and Curtis Jones also praised Williams against FC Midtjylland

Diogo Jota (left) and Curtis Jones also praised Williams against FC Midtjylland

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