EPL

How a temporary stop in York helped Ben Davies on his journey to Liverpool

By Sports Desk February 02, 2021

Preston to Liverpool may not be too far to travel in terms of miles, but it has been quite a footballing journey that has seen Ben Davies end up at Anfield. 

The defender completed one of the more unlikely transfers of this mid-season window, or of any other year for that matter, when he signed a long-term contract to join the reigning Premier League champions on deadline day.  

In need of defensive reinforcements with Joel Matip becoming the latest long-term casualty, the Reds turned to a player from the Championship few thought to be on their radar less than 48 hours earlier. Even the player himself admitted it was all a bit surreal, though this was the kind of career opportunity simply too good to turn down.   

So, February 1, 2021, will now always live long in the memory for Davies, who has taken in a few temporary stops along the way to his current destination. The first of those was at York City, where as a talented but raw teenager he was initially set to stay for a month but ended up sticking around for an entire season in League Two.  

"He was a skinny kid who came into our changing room and was very, very quiet," former York goalkeeper Michael Ingham told Stats Perform News about that 2013-14 campaign. "I think the difference from when he first came to the end of his spell was night and day. 

"Ben came into a good changing room, one with a lot of characters. He was the butt of a couple of jokes but just grew and grew. That's what parent clubs try to do, to get their young players out on loan so they can grow up a bit. He definitely did that. 

"When he was with us, you'd have thought he was a left-back all day long. He's obviously grown into his body and developed that aggressive side to his game, something which you need to play at centre-half."

It was far from easy going in the first half of that campaign: York went into 2014 sitting outside the relegation zone only on goal difference. However, a January recruitment drive by boss Nigel Worthington changed everything. The Minstermen lost just twice in their remaining league games, going from serious candidates to drop through the trapdoor and out of the Football League to unexpected challengers for promotion.  

Davies was a mainstay in the team, making 47 appearances in all competitions. The last of them was in a 0-0 draw in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Fleetwood, a result that ended hopes of going up. There was no promotion to celebrate, but the campaign had undoubtedly been a huge success for him personally. 

Worthington had also produced another transfer masterstroke in getting Nick Pope to York in from Charlton Athletic for the second half of the campaign.  

"I'd picked up a groin strain and had said I’d need to come out, but there was no room in the budget for someone to come in at that stage," Ingham recalls.  

"I played and I played until it eventually went, then someone came in on loan before Popey. I got fit again, kept two clean sheets as we won three games on the bounce. Then, on a Monday, I saw this big lad in the changing room and I knew straight away that I was coming out of the team again.  

"He was an unbelievable size and had great attributes. He struggled a little bit with his kicking while with us but was a great shot-stopper and would come out all day long for crosses. He might drop the odd one but would come again the next time. 

"You could see he had great confidence in his ability and was going on to higher things." 

Both Pope – now pushing hard to be considered England's number one - and Davies would go out on loan again elsewhere to gain valuable experience. It could well be that exactly seven years on from playing on the same team as York's promotion bid ended at Fleetwood, they line up as opponents when Burnley host Liverpool at Turf Moor in mid-May.  

Ingham, now playing at a semi-professional level while working as a coach for i2i Football Academy, will watch on if his former team-mates are pitted on opposite sides in the Premier League. He knows only too well the value of loan moves, something that helped him personally in the early stages of his career after moving to Sunderland.

"I had the quick realisation when going there [to Sunderland] that I needed to play games somewhere to get ready for the first team," the former Northern Ireland international explained. "I didn't think reserve team football was good enough for me, so I went out on loan probably twice every year I was there." 

Davies continued to be a loan ranger for several years too, heading out to Tranmere Rovers, Southport, Newport County and Fleetwood before eventually establishing himself the first team at Preston, initially as a full-back before transitioning to the heart of North End's defence.   

He had been a mainstay in the 2020-21 campaign for manager Alex Neil, playing 1,691 minutes with the team conceding 23 goals in his 19 second-tier appearances. Celtic were reportedly interested with his contract winding down - then Liverpool suddenly came calling and his future plans changed overnight.  

While set to line up in the same position his responsibilities will change markedly for Liverpool, where playing centre-back is about more than just heading the ball clear and getting in the way to block shots. You are expected to perform those tasks, of course, but also help build attacks from the back in a possession-based system that gives licence for those defenders positioned next to you on the flanks to roam forwards.  

Davies has averaged 39.7 passes per game for Preston this term, boasting a completion rate of 79 per cent. Against West Ham on Sunday, the centre-back pairing Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Phillips made 92 and 76 respectively for the Reds. He, along with fellow new addition Ozan Kabak, will have to quickly learn how to play for the ever-demanding Klopp. 

"We play differently to Preston and Schalke so they'll need time but we don't have a lot, so we'll use the time we have in our hands and try our best," the German coach told the media.

After the surreal experience of signing for Liverpool, reality is about to kick in. Still, while no longer that same skinny kid seen at York, that season plying his trade in the fourth tier demonstrated how Davies is capable of adapting.

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