Liverpool's Andre Wisdom talks to FourFourTwo's Jonathan Fadugba about his Liverpool breakthrough, England, dressing room jokers and the burgeoning team spirit at Anfield...
Andre Wisdom doesn’t do empty platitudes. Not for him the computer games or wise-cracks – he admits he’s not a fan of FIFA, unlike many of his fellow youth team companions at Liverpool. The 20-year-old is serious – businesslike even – about his football.
It’s this single-minded career focus that has helped Wisdom progress from his hometown Leeds to playing for Liverpool, the club he supported as a boy. And, now, to his newly appointed position as captain of England’s Under-21s.
It’s all happened swiftly for Wisdom: a year ago he was an untried youngster in the reserves, patiently awaiting his big chance. He had been at Liverpool since he was 14, when he had signed from Bradford City, who had spotted him playing Sunday League football.
Tutored at youth team level by Rodolfo Borrell, he had found first-team opportunities scarce under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish. But when Brendan Rodgers joined the club in 2012 he was quick to give a chance to Wisdom, who seized it immediately.
“Last season was a great season for me," he reflects. "It was my breakthrough season. I made my debut in the Europa League against Young Boys. We got off to a great start, scored a goal and won the game.”
BREAKTHROUGH GAMES IN 2012/13
Premier League - 12 starts
Europa League - 4 starts, 1 goal
League Cup - 1 start
FA Cup - 2 starts
Total - 19 apps (19 starts), 1 goal
Helped by his versatility - he confirms his favourite position is centre-back, although quickly adds that he's comfortable and happy at right-back and would 'play anywhere' - Wisdom quickly settled into the side. Rodgers used the Europa League campaign to assess his squad, but the youngster became something of a fixture: in one 13-game run of fixtures as autumn turned to winter, he missed only two games.
“It was all a dream from then on. I started 11 Premier League matches and also appeared in seven or eight European matches."
It was eight - four as a starter, four as an unused sub - and he actually started 12 Premier League games; obviously, he's getting to the stage where he loses count.
Not that Wisdom is getting blasé at playing alongside Liverpool legends. “I learned a lot and played with some major key players, the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and the rest," he says. "I’m very happy with how the season went.”
As debuts go it can’t get much better than scoring during an away win in Europe, but for Wisdom the whole experience of last season is one the defender was delighted with.
“Obviously it’s good playing a ressie [reserves] game,” says Wisdom, showing both a pleasing respect for the learning process and a comfortable absorption of Scouse parlance for someone born in Leeds' Chapeltown district. “But there’s not that many people there.
"But when you’re at Anfield or another major stadium - I played at Old Trafford and Chelsea away – and you’re playing against players who are such high calibre, the likes of Van Persie, Hazard and Mata, it all seems to change. You think ‘I’m in a different world here!' It’s completely different to playing at Liverpool football academy at two o’clock on a Friday afternoon...
“So yeah, there’s a lot of growing up to do on the pitch and learning how to prepare yourself for the tasks ahead. But I think I handled myself in a decent manner and tried to give everything I could.”
That word 'learning' pops up a lot over the course of a conversation with Wisdom. Level-headed and unpretentious, he's extremely careful not to get carried away, stressing his achievements to date are part of a steep educational curve. Ask him about possible areas for improvement, and he is open and honest.
“There’s definitely loads,” he says firmly. “I’m a young player, learning massively, and I just need to take all the experiences off the other players and keep learning, watching as much football and participating in as much as I can. There’s a lot for me to learn on and off the pitch to improve my game.”
Naturally, being at a major club like Liverpool he needn’t look too far for illuminating case studies. However, Wisdom is uncompromising to the point of stubbornness in refusing to compare himself to others or name idols.
“I wouldn’t say I model my game on anyone or thought ‘I want to be like that,’" he insists. "I’ve always just tried to do my own thing and put my own style on how I play.”
Pushed to name players who inspired him as a kid, Wisdom continues with hard head. “I can’t say I looked up to anyone. Obviously I appreciate and respect everyone’s qualities on the pitch and the careers they’ve had. Jamie Carragher, for example, is a great role model and someone I could learn massive amounts from.
“But at the end of the day it’s me on the pitch so I wouldn’t want to be like anyone else. I just want to do my own thing and help the team to win. I respect everyone, all the great players' qualities.”
Asked about his own qualities, Wisdom is again careful not to set himself up for a fall.
“I can’t put a key point down on how I’d assess myself," he muses. "I just try hard and give my all for the team. It’s hard; I don’t want to maybe think I’m good at something and someone else thinks I’m not quite good at that. Everyone’s got their own opinion so I’ll let the public and the fans and critics decide about that to be honest.” Clearly Wisdom is not yet ready to follow Carragher into the world of media analysis, but then he's barely out of his teens.
He's much happier once the topic of conversation moves away from him specifically. He noticeably relaxes when asked about the burgeoning dressing room spirit at Anfield. Last season he was one of an impressive seven Academy youngsters to step up from Melwood to Liverpool’s first team, and after a highly encouraging start to this season the atmosphere appears to be very positive.
“I get on with everyone,” enthuses Wisdom about the camaraderie at Anfield. “Everyone’s great people at the club and also great players. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Jordon Ibe, Jon Flanagan, Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly - a lot of the younger lads, we all have a good bond together.”
Among the youth team players, Wisdom identifies Jon Flanagan as the joker in the pack: “He’s hilarious, always playing jokes and everything like that.” But as a leader, captain at reserve team level and now with England U21s, Wisdom keeps his distance: “I’m not really into the PlayStation games and things like that.”
And what about the future with England, and on a personal level?
“I think it’s going good. Playing for England is an honour within itself. We played against Scotland the other day and got off to a great start beating them 6-0, the start of a new campaign."
That win was under the caretaker management of seniors boss Roy Hodgson, but Gareth Southgate has now replaced Stuart Pearce after a hugely disappointing U21 Euros in Israel this summer. England finished bottom of the group after losing all three games, although Wisdom can barely be blamed after missing all but five minutes of the first two defeats. Indeed, Southgate was happy to name the Liverpool defender as the captain of his new generation.
"Obviously Israel didn’t go perhaps how we wanted, but we’ll learn from it and hopefully won’t make the mistakes we made in that tournament again.
“Personally, I just need to keep working hard and try to reach the highest level of my ability. Just keep striving.”
It would be way too easy to conclude he has a wise head on young shoulders, but when Wisdom talks like this it’s difficult not to.
Liverpool and England U21 defender Andre Wisdom wears Umbro football boots.