Jarell Quansah exclusive: Liverpool prodigy on family, football and his breakthrough ‘buzz’ – The Athletic

James PearceMar 14, 2024

In a season packed full of uplifting tales for Liverpool, the rise of Jarell Quansah sits above the rest.

Imagine telling the young centre-back last summer that, come mid-March, he would have clocked up more than 20 senior appearances for his boyhood club and lifted the Carabao Cup at Wembley.

Imagine predicting he would be trusted to start a pivotal Premier League match against title rivals Manchester City at Anfield, forming a commanding double act with captain Virgil van Dijk.

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“I would have said, ‘No chance’,” says a smiling Quansah. “Coming into the season, it was more about the opportunity to train with the best players in the world and learn from them.

“Last summer, I probably thought the plan would be to go out on loan again. But when I went on pre-season with the first team I just said to myself, ‘You’ve got to give everything and show what you can do’. Thankfully, I did that, and I was able to kick on. I’ve learned already in football that it’s a mad game and anything can happen.”

Articulate and grounded, the 21-year-old is engaging company at Liverpool’s training complex as he opens up about his journey through the club’s academy, the debt he owes to his proud parents Samuel and Michelle and his remarkable breakthrough campaign under first-team manager Jurgen Klopp.

The youngest of four children, Quansah grew up in Warrington, a town roughly halfway between Merseyside and Greater Manchester where sporting prowess is more often associated with rugby league than football. He joined Liverpool’s academy at the age of five after being spotted playing for junior club Woolston Rovers in his hometown.

“I was centre midfield and I scored six goals in this game with the scout John Alcock watching on,” he says. “I got invited to sessions at the club’s development centre in Warrington for a few months and then when I turned five I came to the academy a couple of times a week. Being a professional footballer was all I ever wanted to be.”

Quansah, who was a pupil at Locking Stumps Primary School, wasn’t short of offers. He spent time at clubs across the north west of England before officially signing for Liverpool at under-nines level. There was a period when their academy staff feared they would lose him to Manchester City.

“I went around different places to see what was out there: I did City, (Manchester) United, Wigan, Bolton… all of them,” he says. “Back then, I was just playing and enjoying what I was doing. Any time I could play football, I was happy. My parents thought having more options would be better.

“I just remember Liverpool offering the best training. That was where I enjoyed my football the most and that’s why I stayed.”

Jarell Quansah playing for Liverpool Under-18s in 2021 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

It was during an under-nines tournament in the French city of Nantes that Quansah found himself playing centre-back for the first time.

“We were struggling in this semi-final and the coach was like, ‘Jarell, drop deeper and help us build from the back’. I didn’t blink. I was always good on the ball and I could dribble,” he says. “From that day onwards, I’ve not really played anywhere else — apart from a bit at right-back.”

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Quansah was in the same year as now Liverpool first-team colleague Conor Bradley, Tyler Morton (on loan at Hull City in the Championship), Billy Koumetio (on loan at Blackburn Rovers, also in English football’s second tier) and Layton Stewart (who left the club for Championship outfit Preston North End last summer).

He captained Liverpool Under-18s to the final of the FA Youth Cup in 2021, delighting academy staff with how he embraced being given greater responsibility.

“I was probably the shyest in my age group, so leadership didn’t come naturally,” Quansah says. “I never really spoke! I was just chilled. The coaches were always telling me that I needed to speak more on the pitch. I had to force it a bit — be more vocal when I was given the armband in the under-16s and under-18s. I just tried to lead by example on the pitch and help people as much as I could off it.”

Family and football are everything to Quansah.

His grandfather Samuel played for Ghana before embarking on a new life in England in the late 1950s. He had a trial at Manchester United before playing at non-League level for Stalybridge Celtic and Droylsden.

His brother Keenan, 26, turned professional with Accrington Stanley but couldn’t force his way into their team. He now plays as a full-back for Merseyside club Southport in National League North, the sixth tier of English football, where Quansah is a regular visitor.

“I used to go all the time but obviously it’s been more difficult this season. I love watching him,” Quansah says. “I must have been about 11 when he got a pro contract. When I went along each Saturday, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what I want to do. What a job!’.

“Keenan has had quite the journey as well with the stuff he’s been through: the high of turning pro, then sitting on the bench, not getting a game, having to drop down the levels and really grind it out. He was pretty much going to drop out of football completely at one point, but to see the determination he’s shown, it’s helped me. It makes you stay level-headed.

“Knowing that could happen to anyone, it keeps me on my toes. He’s probably helped me more than anyone.”

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Quansah’s other siblings have diverse interests — his brother, Marley, is musical, while his big sister, Aliyah, is doing a PhD. “They’re completely different but we’re all close,” he adds.

He moved out of the family home in Warrington when he joined third-tier club Bristol Rovers on loan for the second half of last season and now lives in an apartment in Manchester. It was that spell in League One — spanning 16 appearances — that he credits as giving him the perfect platform to return to Liverpool last summer and force his way into Klopp’s plans for this season.

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“My first game, we got beaten 5-1 (away to Morecambe) but somehow, despite the scoreline, I played well,” he says. “I learned more in those 90 minutes than in the previous couple of years.

“It was a real eye-opener. I was thankful for the manager (Joey Barton) who trusted me and played me in every game. The different strikers you come up against, different styles. We had a young back four and a lot of teams would go direct against us, thinking they could bully us. Trying to win aerial duels, getting bashed about a bit.

“There were times when I thought, ‘I’m miles off it’. In academy football, I was comfortable, never really challenged physically, chilling and cruising through games. Then I was thrown in at the deep end a bit. It was a wake-up call but so good for me.

Quansah learned plenty on loan at Bristol Rovers (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“I came back in my best shape after the summer break. I put everything into it and managed to get a few opportunities on the tour in Singapore. As pre-season went on, there was just a vibe. If you’re not looking out of place in the squad, then you aren’t going to be sent anywhere.”

Quansah had taken such strides forward that Klopp felt there was no need to sign another centre-back last summer, and the then 20-year-old effectively became fifth-choice for the first team behind Van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez.

His senior debut came in the third game, away to Newcastle United in late August, when he replaced Matip with 13 minutes of the 90 remaining. Liverpool were losing 1-0 and down to 10 men following the first-half dismissal of Van Dijk but Darwin Nunez’s late double secured a thrilling victory.

“I had about five minutes of nerves after Virg got sent off as I was sat on the bench thinking, ‘I could come on here’. When I was warming up and when the time came, I just felt ready. In that situation, the atmosphere just carries you — the whole buzz.”

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Klopp’s faith in Quansah was underlined when he was handed a first Premier League start away to Wolves two games later. With Gomez providing cover for an injured Trent Alexander-Arnold at full-back, Matip suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) rupture later in December and Konate having to deal with a number of muscle problems, Quansah’s importance grew.

His progress has been rapid and his performances increasingly composed, culminating in Sunday’s date with treble winners City at Anfield, when he helped nullify the threat of Erling Haaland as a pulsating match finished as a 1-1 draw.

“It comes down to the trust the manager has shown in me,” Quansah says. “If someone is umming and ahhing about putting you in, you’d be stood there thinking: ‘Does he really think I’m good enough?’.

“But Jurgen has done it with so many young players. It’s about having that belief that they will do well. He’s watched us all enough. I’m just trying to take in everything in terms of his coaching style and absorb as much as I possibly can from him before he leaves in the summer.”

Quansah has benefited from Jurgen Klopp’s trust (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

If Klopp is one of Quansah’s footballing teachers, Van Dijk is another.

“Virg talks you through the game when you’re in it,” he says. “Before the game, he’s telling you about opposition strikers and what to expect: what their strengths are, what they tend to do in certain situations. As captain of the team, he sets the standards.

“All of the other centre-backs have helped me in different ways. Ibou’s (Konate) one-v-one defending is so special. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The same with Joel, with the way he steps in and drives forward with the ball, how he breaks lines and picks the right pass. It’s just a great learning experience for me.”

Quansah himself is a student of the game, spending hours studying footage of Sergio Ramos, Leonardo Bonucci, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro on YouTube.“I just love watching how different defenders defend,” he says. “I’m a visual learner, so I’m always looking at how they deal with certain situations and I try to implement it myself. No matter who I watch, I can pick little things up quite quickly.”

Quansah next to his mentor Van Dijk after the Carabao Cup final (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Ask Quansah to pick one moment that stands out from the rest this season and the answer is instant: “Wembley”.

He replaced Konate at the start of the second period of extra time in last month’s Carabao Cup final against Chelsea and was in the thick of the celebrations after Van Dijk’s 118th-minute winner.

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His parents and siblings were in the stands as he lifted the trophy before they were reunited in the Wembley players’ lounge.

“It was crazy,” Quansah recalls. “I walked in and my brothers said, ‘You’ve had Mum and Dad crying!’.

“It’s good to know they are living the emotional rollercoaster with me too. They sacrificed a lot. All those days when they would have to take time off from work to give me lifts to and from training; the days when I’d be upset in the car after losing a game and I’d be crying or shouting on the way home…

“I’m just so grateful for everything they did for me. I saw the final as repaying them for all of that and making them proud. I’m glad there’s been something to show for it already this season with a big trophy — and hopefully there’s more to come.”

Our time is up. Quansah needs to report for a session in the gym.

He has come so far so fast this season — saving Liverpool a fortune in the transfer market in the process — and yet the best may still be ahead, with the club in contention to complete an unprecedented quadruple by also winning the title, FA Cup and Europa League. Whatever happens over the next couple of months, Quansah is in no rush to move on.

“I’m playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world,” he says. “I’ve been here for 16 years already, so why not make it 25 or 30 years? That’s the dream.”

(Top photo: James Pearce/The Athletic)

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James Pearce joins the Athletic after 14 years working for the Liverpool Echo. The dad-of-two has spent the past decade covering the fortunes of Liverpool FC across the globe to give fans the inside track on the Reds from the dressing room to the boardroom. Follow James on Twitter @JamesPearceLFC

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