They were given pre-match odds of 90-1 by some British bookmakers.
Some of them were dropped off at the stadium ahead of the game by their mothers and fathers.
A bunch of new jerseys needed to be printed before kickoff on Friday, adding rarely seen squad numbers up to 76 for the teenagers who, at late notice, were about to play for Aston Villa against the superstars of English champion Liverpool in the FA Cup.
Imagine the widespread disbelief, then, when Villa’s kids defied grim predictions by reaching halftime of the supposed third-round mismatch at 1-1 against the best team in the country, a lineup containing the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson.
As expected, Liverpool pulled clear in the second half, but there was little to really celebrate from the 4-1 win at an empty Villa Park.
“One of their lads said he hadn’t played for two months.” said Liverpool midfielder James Milner, who made his professional debut before four of Villa’s players were born. “It wasn’t ideal for either team. Nobody wants this but it’s where we’re at at this moment unfortunately.”
Villa was plunged into the desperate situation following a coronavirus outbreak in the first-team squad that led to the closure of the club’s training ground this week. Ten senior players, it was revealed early Friday, had contracted the coronavirus along with four staff and there was only one solution: Villa had to field members of its under-18 and under-23 teams for the game against Liverpool.
Having taken — and passed — tests for COVID-19 to show they were fine to play, seven players from the under-23s and four from the under-18s lined up against a stronger-than-expected Liverpool lineup, boosted by some pre-match words of encouragement by Villa’s best player.
“Good luck tonight boys, no pressure whatsoever,” tweeted Jack Grealish, the Villa captain and England international. “Go out there and enjoy yourselves.”
And they did, even though Mane gave Liverpool the lead with a header in the fourth minute — a goal that was expected to open the floodgates for the visitors.
Instead, Villa’s kids battled gamely and, after riding their luck at times, equalized against all the odds when Louie Barry — a 17-year-old striker recently returned to his boyhood club after a spell at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy — ran in behind Liverpool’s defense to slot home a composed finish in the 41st.
“It was the proudest I’ve ever been of myself,” Barry said. “My family were probably screaming at the TV when it hit the back of the net. It happened all so quick.”
So anxious was Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp that he sent on Thiago Alcantara, a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich last year, for the start of the second half and the midfielder’s range of passing prompted an improvement.
The sucker-punch for Villa came from Liverpool scoring three goals in a five-minute span from the 60th, through Georginio Wijnaldum, Mane and Salah.
Villa’s players, to their huge credit, didn’t concede again and wore looks of pride at the final whistle.
“That was a monumental effort considering what the players have had to go through,” said Mark Delaney, Villa’s under-23s coach who took charge for the game with first-team manager Dean Smith also absent.
Barry exchanged jerseys with Liverpool midfielder Fabinho after the fulltime whistle, and was then seen chasing after the Brazilian to get his shirt back so he could keep it as a souvenir of a memorable night.
“From start to finish, we gave our all,” Barry said. “When I scored, I thought we might even have a chance here … credit to ourselves and the club.”
In the other third-round match on Friday, Wolverhampton beat fellow Premier League team Crystal Palace 1-0 thanks to Adama Traore’s powerfully struck shot in the 35th.