Krisztián Németh was grinning. With his arms hoisted in the air, he kissed his fists and turned towards the Anfield dugout. It was his first appearance in the hallowed ground, but having spent just ten minutes on the pitch, he had already netted his first goal. “The one against Aston Villa with my left foot, it’s my favourite goal [in a Liverpool shirt]” Krisztián tells These Football Times.
It had come at the end of a hard-fought season. Németh and his Liverpool reserve side had finished at the top of the Northern Division to set-up the ultimate showdown against Aston Villa. The Hungarian’s goal would be the first of three on a night which would see the young Reds lift the reserves league title for the first time since 2000.
For Németh, his performance at Anfield would be yet another sign of his abundant potential.
With football having an insoluble obsession with wonderkids, Németh had gripped the Anfield faithful after a particularly barren spell in the academy. The Hungarian possessed all the archetypal traits of a wonderkid. In his homeland, by the time he was 16, he was heralded as the “saviour” of Hungarian football. Declared as the rightful heir to Ferenc Puskás, the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Ajax battled for his services. In the end, Rafa Benítez pipped them all and lured the exciting young star to Anfield.
At Liverpool, Németh couldn’t have wished for a better start. He scored an outstanding five goals in his first three games for Liverpool’s reserves, including a brace in the mini derby against Everton. He would end the season as the reserves’ top scorer. By the end of the year, Németh was voted the Reserves Player of the Year.
With the season capped off by his performance at Anfield, the Hungarian’s route to the first team looked inexorable. The parallels with Fernando Torres were obvious. The pair had arrived in the same summer, they had both enjoyed a blistering start to their Liverpool careers, and thus Németh was affixed with the ‘new Torres’ label.
Looking back at his time at Anfield, a decade since his departure, when I ask Németh what the biggest difference was coming from Hungary to Melwood, he chuckles. “Everything,” he says. “From the training to the facilities, the size of the club and the tempo which took a while to get used to.”
Despite the unprecedented environment, the goals kept coming, and Németh’s reputation continued to grow. Liverpool reserves manager, Gary Ablett, would even compare him to Kenny Dalglish in an interview with the club’s official website.
His performances would merit him a regular place at Melwood, training alongside the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso. Németh admits it didn’t really “sink in” at the time. “I watched them closely,” he says, “especially Torres, I watched him a lot, the way he finished his chances in training and the way Gerrard would approach the sessions. The professional attitude was inspiring.”
In the summer, he and Benítez were in close communication and the Hungarian would get his opportunity to shine in a series of friendly games for the first team. A competitive debut beckoned. Unfortunately, disaster would strike.
In October, Németh suffered the first of what proved to be a plethora of injuries at Liverpool. From breaking a bone in his face on his first appearance during a loan spell with Blackpool to two operations within a space of a year, he admits his “injuries came at a bad time.”
For a young player desperate to seize his chance, the recurrent injury troubles would take a mental toll. “I could see the chance in front of me and that I couldn’t reach it.” He takes a deep breath. “Of course it wasn’t just because of the injuries [that he didn’t make it at Liverpool] but they played a big part, because there were a few opportunities that if perhaps I wasn’t injured I could have taken.”
Németh would eventually fight back from his struggles. During the following pre-season, he’d feature regularly in the first team and would net a brace lining up alongside Torres and Kuyt in a cameo against Singapore XI. Németh considers that period as the closest he came to the first team, before making a hasty deadline move to Greece.
“If I didn’t move to AEK, I would have probably made my debut. I did well in the first team during pre-season and there was a period when Torres and most of the other forwards were out injured at Liverpool and only David Ngog was available.”
Of course, Németh was no fortune teller and he admits “he didn’t take [a potential injury crisis] into account.” However, the feeling amongst most Liverpool fans is that Németh is right when he says “things could have turned out differently” had he stayed at Liverpool.
At the time, Németh and Ngog – who served as the deputy to Torres following Nemeth’s departure – were players on the same level. On a poll on Liverpool’s official website, the fans voted Németh as having impressed the most in pre-season. Liverpool supporters were desperate to see him in the first team.
In the end, despite an impressive loan spell at AEK Athens, the Hungarian would depart Anfield in the summer of 2010, six months before his counterpart in the first team, Torres, would do the same.
A decade on and Nemeth’s name still holds cult status among zealous Liverpool supporters. His potential talent is discussed every blue moon on social media and his brief fleeting moment in the spotlight remains ingrained in the minds of many. The Hungarian’s story is marked by the misfortune of injuries, fine margins and hasty transfer decisions. But it’s not a standalone tale.
Németh was the first in a successive line of Liverpool academy forwards who were labelled as the next big thing. Adam Morgan, Samed Yeşil, Jerome Sinclair and now Rhian Brewster have followed suit since. For Morgan, dubbed the “next Fowler”, a combination of injuries and fierce competition would prove to be his downfall. In the case of Jerome Sinclair, titled the “next Owen”, it would be the striker wanting it too soon, and when it comes to Rhian Brewster the jury is still open.
These youngsters were not helped by the fact that Liverpool’s forward lineage has boasted an impressive list of names during the past decade. While Németh had to vest for a spot against the likes of Torres and Kuyt, Morgan was competing with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. Meanwhile, Sinclair had the likes of Roberto Firmino, Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert as well as Sturridge standing in his way, and Brewster has Firmino and Divock Origi to go up against.
In that environment, talent is simply not enough. You have to rely on fine-margins and luck to stake a claim. But while Németh didn’t make a lasting impression in the first team, he did make a mark by capturing the imagination of the fans.
Football has morphed into more than just what happens for 90 minutes on the pitch. It’s a game which relies on emotion and opinion, speculation and fantasy. From transfer rumour to kit designs and tactics. The phenomenon of unearthing a young star in the academy is one such perpetually enduring and gripping fantasy. It has the power to make football fans’ spines tingle, for the mind to wander, drifting through endless possibilities.
Németh and his cohort never fulfilled even a vestige of the fantasies Liverpool fans had ordained for them. Nonetheless, as wonderkids they brought titillating excitement. They most likely occupied the minds of avid fans just as often as their counterparts in the first team during their time in the spotlight and are thus remembered fondly at Anfield.
Németh’s “mini Torres” tag would ultimately fade into oblivion, but the myth of what could have been lingers.
In the real world, Németh has gone onto have a successful career playing across the globe, most notably in Major League Soccer and the Eredivisie. His proudest achievement, he admits, was “representing his country at the 2016 European Championship” in which he starred in a thrilling 3-3 draw against Portugal and a 2-0 victory over Austria.
His career is a story of resilience: from a wonderkid fighting through injuries to a football nomad, the Hungarian has left an enduring legacy enshrouded by the myth of his potential. But Krisztián Németh’s reality is the reality of many others.
For every young star like Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard or Trent Alexander-Arnold, there are hundreds of others who were tipped to follow suit but for one reason or another failed to live up to the expectations. Their stories, however, are just as interesting as the tales of those who did make it.
By Bence Bocsák @BenBocsak