“Manchester City wanted to take the whole team. City, Man United, Liverpool, Everton… all of these teams wanted the boys to go,” former Greenleas JFC assistant coach Scott Morton reflects. “It was a freak group of kids. It was one of those groups. They were just freakishly talented.”
Scott is the father of Liverpool academy midfielder Tyler Morton. His 18-year-old son, who made his first-team debut against Norwich City in the Carabao Cup last month, was one of nine players to feature in the squad for the Greenleas seven-a-side team that Manchester City wanted to snap up en masse after their own academy team were humbled 22-0 by the under-sevens side.
“Out of the nine, eight of them went on to play academy football,” the team’s former manager Wes Warrington, father to Everton Under-23s midfielder Lewis Warrington, proudly informs The Athletic. “Today, Liverpool have three: Tyler Morton, Max Woltman (striker) and Sean Wilson (full-back).
“We had a good balance in the team. Sean is still quick and nimble. Max played all over the place. We had him on the wing and up front. He just had bundles of energy. Tyler was technically very good. The ball just stuck to his feet. He was magic. He was the one who stood out. He had a gift. He’s always had a footballer’s brain.
“Our Lewis is at Everton. Matty Carson has just signed professional terms for Accrington Stanley. Matty was a left-footer, he was good. He was at Everton, then went to Burnley and is now at Accrington. He had a cracking left foot and played at left-back.
“Joe Levey is at Crewe. He was a left winger. Joe could shoot from anywhere. Liam Hayes was up front as our striker. Now he’s a professional golfer in America. That kid knew where the net was. He was playing golf when he played for us and you just knew he was going to be a golfer.
“Our Lewis was the centre-half at the time. We played two at the back. Sean and Lewis kept everything out. Ben Cross was the goalkeeper. He wasn’t really a goalie. (but) Nobody got near our goal so we put Ben in because he was their mate from school. Ben comes from a good family and just got involved.
“Sam Hughes is another one. He plays for Chester now. Sam was a great player. He was a midfielder. He was like a little general, he did all the doggy work. He was a good tackler and fast on the ball.”
Woltman’s dad, Jason, also coached the Wallasey-based team. He, too, uses the word “freakish” to describe their talent.
“They didn’t need a goalkeeper. It was odd. It was very odd,” Jason says. “It was a group of players who, at the age of five, could play as a team, as opposed to a group of individuals. They just wanted to play football. They were passionate about succeeding at such a young age. You don’t usually get that.
“They only ever lost one game before they all got signed. That was because they played against Everton on the Friday night and didn’t get in until 10pm. The game kicked off at 9am the next morning and they got beat 2-1. That was the only game they lost. They beat City, United, Everton, Liverpool… they beat every academy team put in front of them. They just rolled them over. They were, and are, just a special bunch of lads.”
Lewis Warrington is playing regularly for Everton Under-23s (Photo: Emma Simpson – Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images)
The group started playing together for fun at age four in the Soccer Dome, a sports complex in their native Wallasey. It was then that dads Warrington, Morton and Woltman noticed the boys’ potential and decided to join Greenleas.
“I remember the first friendly. The other team looked 10ft tall compared to them — but we played them off the park,” Wes Warrington says. “They were so good to watch.”
When they were old enough, Wes would enrol the team into the Wallasey League and the Birkenhead League. The team would play on a Saturday morning and then again in the afternoon. This would free up their Sundays for academy football, with most of the players at that time in either Liverpool’s or Everton’s pre-academy set-up.
“I had the parents going everywhere. We played in tournaments all the time. The parents loved me,” Wes laughs. “All I did was drag them around. But I just knew this team was special and needed to play.
“Have you ever heard of the Manchester Champions League? The Reddish Vulcans run it. It is the biggest in the north west. A lot of the academies enter it. We went with seven players. That’s all we had on the day, and we won it. The next day, we went to the Gadbrook Cup in Cheshire and won that. It was unbelievable.”
The team, who mostly attended nearby Greenleas Primary School, also won the Merseyside Schools’ Cup.
“It is only a little school in Wallasey, so to beat all the schools in Liverpool was a big achievement,” Scott Morton says. “Our summers were filled with tournaments. If we didn’t win, we were in the finals. We were very successful and won more than 10 tournaments. The big one was beating Phil Foden’s former club, Reddish Vulcans. That team and tournament in Manchester are recognised nationally. Winning two tournaments over that weekend, that’s what sticks out in my head. That was some achievement.”
The team trained at Harrison Park, which is a stone’s throw from the New Brighton coastline on the Wirral Peninsula. The park’s grass-covered sandhills look out towards the Irish Sea, but it was a more southerly inspiration that helped the team go unbeaten for whole seasons.
“I used to get my training sessions from Tottenham’s under-14s. They used to post them on YouTube, so I used to study them and then go and teach them,” Wes explains. “It was very advanced, but the players were capable of doing it. We used to train them for a good two hours. Set everything up and go through the drills. You think, ‘This one might be difficult for them’, but no, it wasn’t. They would pick it up so easily.”
Morton puts the youth team’s success partly down to the influence of older siblings.
“I always thought older brothers were the biggest factor in it and the competition within themselves,” he says. “If your mates are good and you can beat them, it is going to help you develop.”
Greenleas chairman Paul Miney says the team, which disbanded at under-nines, will always be known as one of the strongest the club has ever produced.
“We have always prided ourselves on having a good, local grassroots reputation. That’s why it was great when Jay Spearing progressed and is still having a good career. Now we are seeing that transition with the likes of Tyler, Max, Lewis and the other lads. It’s a feel-good story — these local Wallasey boys have done good.”
Spearing, who played for two years at Greenleas before joining Liverpool’s academy, recognises the impact the club had on his career.
“It was a short experience for me but those first two years are where my football career started with all of my friends. I owe a massive amount to Greenleas,” he tells The Athletic.
Now playing for Tranmere Rovers and coaching Liverpool Under-16s twice a week after spells with Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool, Spearing is surprised to hear how many of the players from that Greenleas team made the transition into academy level football.
“They all came through at Greenleas? That’s mad,” says the 32-year-old, who made 55 first-team appearances for Liverpool between 2008 and 2013. “Being back at the club, I have heard quite a bit about Tyler. People are talking about him saying he’s a good kid, he works hard and loves a tackle. It is good to see these lads coming through, as I know how much work goes into it. I am buzzing for them but they have to take their opportunities.”
Spearing has some advice, too, for his fellow Greenleas alumni: “Take your chances when they come, and enjoy it. You have to work harder than anyone else. Do more.
“You have to make the manager see that you are working harder. Don’t be at the back of the queue when you are jogging for a warm-up — don’t be at the back for anything. Put yourself out there in the spotlight and show them you want to take someone’s spot, you want to be part of it.
“You have to go and grab your chance. At clubs like Liverpool and Everton, it isn’t just given to you.”