He was made to wait for it; a four-month delay in which Liverpool went from European to world champions. For Joe Hardy, the August transfer window was shut with an indecent amount of haste. Looking back, Jürgen Klopp was one of the most vocal critics of the earlier than usual closing of the Premier League transfer window.
Hardy himself was taken entirely by surprise by Liverpool’s deadline day interest in moving the Wirral born striker to Anfield. He tells These Football Times: “It was a big surprise to me as I found out only on deadline day last summer that Liverpool came in for me. We tried to get the deal done for me to sign back in August on deadline day, but it didn’t get sorted in time. Sadly, I had to wait another four months to sign for Liverpool.”
Undeterred by the disappointment of a deal not being done last summer, Hardy applied himself to his existing role at Brentford and patiently bided his time. “I had a fair few months to get myself as ready as possible for the move here, so I worked very hard in those months to get myself in the best possible physical place I can.”
It hasn’t taken Hardy long to make an impact for the Liverpool under-23s. Having made his debut as a substitute against former employers Manchester City, – a game in which he almost conjured up a late equaliser in a narrow 1-0 defeat – he plundered very well-taken goals in his second start for his new club against Southampton, linking quickly with Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliot in a strong line-up that included five players who had been on duty for the first team in their stunning FA Cup victory over neighbours Everton, just over a week earlier.
For Hardy, signing for Liverpool has brought his career full circle before he has even played a first-team game. A son of the Wirral, just across the River Mersey, he played his formative football with Tranmere, which was an invaluable grounding. On his days at Prenton Park, Hardy says: “Playing for Tranmere as a young boy, being able to play against professional academies from the young age of seven or eight, I would say it got my name out there a bit more. I didn’t realise that it would as I was just enjoying playing football and many other sports at the time, but soon I was able to get a move to Manchester City at the age of 13, which was the start of my years in one of the world’s best academies.”
Before any of this, however, Hardy had already enjoyed the experience of football’s limelight being shined upon him when he stepped out to play at Wembley alongside his older brother for St Winefride’s Primary School. “Luckily, I got the honour to play at the new Wembley, as we got to the final in a school competition. So, as a young boy in year five and my older brother in year six, it was such an exciting experience for me and my family,” Hardy says with an enormous sense of pride.
At 13, Hardy moved on from Tranmere, joining City. While Rovers certainly weren’t unorganised in their approach, it proved a massive step up. Whereas his time at Tranmere represented a big opportunity, it was a period in his development that perhaps represented football predominantly as a source of fun and enjoyment, rather than it being viewed as a career possibility.
This isn’t to suggest that football wasn’t fun at City for Hardy; more that he began to think about the game on multi-layered levels. This was mind expansion. Regarding his years with City, Hardy divulged: “I have played under a lot of different coaches, with a lot of different playing styles, ways of training and lots of different personalities. In the academy at City, coaches such as Gareth Taylor and Lee Carsley were the ones who got the best out of me.
“Gareth was a very good manager and he played me in a different position than others would. He thought that I would be most effective playing wide on the right, always wanting to go forward and be very direct with my runs in behind. It was a completely new position for me rather than my usual number nine, a more central position that I’m used to. But I still managed to end the under-16s season with him as top goalscorer and managed to score for the under-18s too.”
Moving up to the under-18s, Hardy fell under the guidance of Carsley, the former Everton midfielder and a man who is now a specialist under-21 coach for the FA. Full of praise for Carsley, Hardy continues: “Lee was a massive influence for me, he was my under-18s coach at City. He played me in my natural position, and I feel as if he got the best out of me because he believed in me and my ability.
“I got on well with him and he would always communicate with me and be very honest, as it was a very important season in my career. I started looking for other teams to join after Christmas of that season and he was a big help in getting me to Brentford. He used to be the head coach there so had a lot of contacts and he sold the club well to me. I agreed and liked the look of the club and then eventually I moved there.”
It was with broadening horizons that Hardy made the move south, but a transfer he took entirely in his stride. “I didn’t find it difficult to leave City behind. Of course I made lots of good friends there, but I saw it as a chance to progress as a player and person and experience something completely different, moving down to London on my own. The move was easy: everyone made me feel welcome and I settled in very easily. I’ve made lifelong friends at Brentford who all helped and there were a lot in my position who came down to London on their own from places up north at just 18.
“London is completely different than Manchester or Liverpool, especially the Wirral, but I enjoyed my time there and made a lot of good memories. I just saw the move to Brentford as an opportunity to try and get some first-team football and improve as a player and person. I learnt a lot of lessons being there, things I will take into my professional and personal life.”
Prolific for the Brentford B team, and blessed with an eclectic range of goals, Hardy is a natural and instinctive footballer. While he has never consciously modelled his game on any other player, he grew up in awe of the powerful and potent performances of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and the bewitching skills of Lionel Messi. “My favourite player and possibly the reason I started watching and playing football was Lampard. I just loved the way he would score goal after goal – he was just a serial winner. Back then, he was winning the Premier League with Chelsea and that’s when I first realised and understood about the game. I would try and replicate his goals in the garden and stick my little brother in goal for them.
“I didn’t particularly support a team, but each England and Chelsea top I managed to get every Christmas, I got Lampard on the back of it and would rarely take it off. Once I started playing and knowing the game more, Messi was my idol and has been ever since. I’ve never seen anything like him – and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just an honour to get the chance to watch him play every time he’s on television and you’ve got to make the most of that because we’re coming into the last few years of his career now.”
Back to the current day at Liverpool, it is solely the present that he focuses on. “I think the transition has gone well, it’s very easy to move to a team like this, a very good club. I’ve just been giving my best in training and games since being here, and I think that the players believe in my ability to score and I feel like they already know what my strengths are, so we can make the most of them in how we play.
“Being able to move back home where my family are helps, I have always believed if you’re happy off the pitch you will play your best football. Being back with my family and friends has made the transition very easy, and I’m currently enjoying my football a lot more than I have for the last couple of seasons.”
Reluctant to cast his eye too far ahead, Hardy is enjoying each day as it comes. “I haven’t set myself any specific targets, I just want to play as well as I can in the under-23 games and see where that takes me. Obviously, seeing Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliot getting a lot of opportunities in the first team shows you that our manager is willing to give youth a chance, that there is a clear pathway if you prove yourself. This is very important as it gives you the belief that there will be a reward for playing well week in week out.”
Hardy is, however, fully conscious of the position that his new club have arrived at – in the wider expanse of being reigning European champions, world champions and with a first league title in 30 years seemingly within their grasp. Just as most people did, he watched on in amazement last May when Liverpool completed that incredible fightback against Barcelona. “Most of my friends are Liverpool fans, so I was experiencing it from a fan’s point of view. It was incredible to see two English teams in the final, especially in the way that both managed to reach it, with the comebacks against Barcelona and Ajax.
“I believe that this incredible season Liverpool are having now started back when they beat Barcelona at home, and they have just been getting better and improving and winning everything ever since. It didn’t surprise me one bit seeing Liverpool lift the Champions League: the way the fans get behind the team every single home game, no matter the opponent, you can see the clear improvements to the team that Jürgen Klopp has made, which has turned Liverpool into the best in the world. The hard work starts off the pitch and the best team is always the hardest working one.”
Like a perpetually altering chessboard, Hardy’s arrival to compete for a place in Liverpool’s under-23 team has allowed Klopp to send Rhian Brewster on loan to Swansea. At Anfield, it is all about development and with Neil Critchley’s young side set to step up to cover for Klopp’s first team in Liverpool’s FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury, you might well get to see Hardy’s most public development session yet.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74