By David Lynch
With 66 minutes on the clock and Liverpool 3-2 down, Brendan Rodgers may have cursed the lack of experience when he looked to his bench against Young Boys on Thursday evening.
That the Northern Irishman’s immediate reaction to the Swiss side’s third goal of the night was to throw Jonjo Shelvey into the breach said much about the esteem in which the midfielder is currently held at Anfield.
Though the 20-year-old could claim no part in the Sebastian Coates header which came just a minute after his introduction, the two goals which followed ensured his name was etched twice on the scoresheet and that Liverpool took the three points. A 5-3 scoreline may have flattered the Reds, but the three-goal turnaround which Shelvey’s arrival catalysed was an entirely accurate depiction of his influence.
The Romford-born midfielder did not just take his goals well; he brought a level of control to Liverpool’s engine room which had been sorely lacking in a topsy-turvy game. In fact, it was a performance reminiscent of another in Europe’s second-tier competition witnessed by Reds fans just two years ago.
At Anfield in November 2010, the Merseysiders trailed 1-0 to Napoli and looked certain to be heading to yet another defeat under a hapless Roy Hodgson. Half-time substitute Steven Gerrard had other ideas though and, three goals later, had sealed the points for his side following an untouchable goalscoring cameo.
Of course Shelvey may have scored less in his short appearance against Young Boys, but he also had less time. That his double came in dragging an inexperienced side to victory away from home also makes his showing all the more impressive and ensures that the parallels between the two midfielders will continue to be drawn.
The Charlton academy product has arguably surpassed the Liverpool captain’s performances so far this season, with concerns over the Huyton-born star’s sluggishness following an injury-hit campaign last time out still yet to be erased. Yet, Rodgers will accept that Shelvey still has a long way to go if he is to oust the skipper from the side on a permanent basis, there are several moments forever etched into the club’s folklore which testify to the 31-year-old’s ability.
The Northern Irishman can at least take comfort from the patient approach he can take in introducing Shelvey to the side, a luxury which was not afforded his predecessor. Due to injuries to Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva, Kenny Dalglish handed Shelvey something of a baptism of fire last year, one which he had not earned yet still took with both hands.
The vicissitudes of a difficult campaign at Anfield – one in which the youngster’s promising but occasionally frustrating performances were never excused by his tender years – have shaped Shelvey for the better. The harshest critics have only served to instil the player with the mental capacity necessary to succeed at Anfield, a quality which dovetails well with his undeniable talent.
This was never more evident than in his substitute appearance against champions Manchester City just four weeks ago, as he came from the bench just six minutes in following Lucas’ thigh tear. There was collective concern amongst the crowd about the midfielder’s ability to cope, especially when replacing such a vital cog in Rodgers’ team, but Shelvey simply set about laying those doubts to rest in the remaining 84 minutes of an intense contest.
And it is this sort of form will not have gone unnoticed by England boss Hodgson, who appears to be in the midst of a search for a goalscoring midfielder – as the recent botched Tom Cleverley experiment proves.
He could certainly do worse than look at Shelvey, who also underlined his international credentials by scoring and providing an assist as Stuart Pearce’s Under-21 side defeated Azerbaijan 2-0 earlier this month.
Exposure in the Three Lions senior squad will only underline Rodgers’ astuteness in making signing Shelvey up to a new long-term contract one of his first moves upon joining Liverpool. The £1.7 million paid to Charlton by Rafael Benitez may also start to look like something of a bargain given the midfielder’s price has already doubtless increased several times over.
Of course, with Gerrard’s career now entering its final years and Shelvey’s promise seemingly endless, Liverpool may hope they never have to find out by just how much.
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