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Wayne Harrison: The Tragic Teenage Wonder of Liverpool

The scrapbook is meticulously preserved, a series of newspaper clippings saved and collated by a proud father.It charts almost every step on Wayne Harrison’s journey towards the big time, from first kicking a ball for Woodsmoor Colts and goalscoring exploits for Stockport Boys and Greater Manchester Boys, to making his professional debut for Oldham Athletic at 16 and then becoming the most expensive teenager in football history when he joined Liverpool in a £250,000 deal shortly after turning 17.

At her home in Stockport, his sister Adele chuckles at some of the descriptions: “teenage wonder”, “soccer saviour”, “wonder waif”. She could never get her head around the idea that her younger brother was a football prodigy.

To his family, he was always just “Our Wayne”. “A proper mummy’s boy,” Adele says. “He never left his mum’s side except to go to school and play football.”

As we leaf through the scrapbook, the tone of the headlines changes: from “Whizz Kid Wayne” to “forgotten starlet” and “invisible man”, a player bedevilled by injuries, lost in the system at Liverpool, unable to break into their all-conquering team of the 1980s. Two separate headlines from that time ask, “Whatever happened to Baby Wayne?”, riffing on the title of a 1962 film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

What happened to Harrison was a tragedy — a career curtailed by injury, forcing him to retire at the age of 23, and then, ultimately, a life cut short.

…Injuries didn’t just wreck Harrison’s career; they damaged his life.

After more than 20 operations on his knee, he ended up unable to work, living on disability benefits, his dreams shattered, a glorious future far behind him — “heartbroken”, Adele says — before he died of pancreatic cancer on Christmas Day 2013.

News of Harrison’s death, at the age of 46, sent a brief tremor through English football.

Tributes poured in for a player whose rare talent was matched only by his capacity for misfortune. An FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Oldham fell poignantly just over a week later, allowing both sets of fans and players to commemorate Harrison with a minute’s applause at Anfield. But then the ovation faded away and football forgot him for a second time.

…Ten years on, this feels like an opportune moment to remember Harrison and to tell his story in depth. Not just the dramatic rise, the record-breaking transfer, the injuries and the struggle to live up to expectations, but the growing pains of an ordinary boy who longed for the normal life his extraordinary talent had taken him away from — and who then, plunged back into normal life, his dreams shattered, was left lamenting the career he could have had.

He was barely out of school.

Harrison was a few weeks short of his 17th birthday when he made his Football League debut in October 1984, becoming the youngest first-team player in Oldham’s history. His strike partner Micky Quinn, who went on to play for Coventry City in the Premier League, recalls, “Wayne looked like a gust of wind could knock him over. But he was razor-sharp.”

…Amid considerable fanfare, Harrison signed on the dotted line at Liverpool, whose manager Joe Fagan said he was the type of “special player” you hear about “perhaps once in 20 years”. Alongside Fagan, decked out in Liverpool hat and scarf, Harrison smiled awkwardly, looking like someone who can’t quite believe what is happening to them.

The plan was to return to Oldham on loan for three months, keep playing first-team football, before moving to Liverpool permanently. “But we cut it short,” Royle says. “The kid’s head, naturally, had been turned. He wanted to be at Liverpool and to get on with his career there.”

Did he, though? Did Harrison really want to play for Liverpool?

…This isn’t just the perspective of a big sister with no interest in football. Harrison said it explicitly in interviews at the time (“I never wanted to leave”) but Oldham’s financial situation had left him with little choice. He also told Royle he didn’t “really fancy spending three years in Liverpool’s reserves”

…On the face of it, that seemed entirely normal. For one thing, he was still only 18. For another, this was simply what Liverpool did in the 1980s. Ronnie Whelan, Ian Rush, Steve Nicol and Jim Beglin had all joined as teenagers and spent at least 12 months in the reserves, learning the fabled Liverpool Way, before starting to feature regularly in the first team.

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