Liverpool, who controversially fielded the youngest ever team in their history for an FA Cup fourth round replay against Shrewsbury — with manager Jurgen Klopp not even in the ground — silenced their critics with a remarkable victory that underlined the incredible depth of talent at Anfield.
It took an own goal from Ro-Shaun Williams to seal the tie, and a questionable VAR decision to rule out a Shrewsbury opener to make it happen.
But the fact that Liverpool’s youth team, average age 19, were good enough to beat the League One side and earn a fifth round trip to Chelsea spoke volumes about the club and the way it is set up.
There was pride in the display in Ireland, too, because Cork-born goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, one of the older players on show at just 21, played from the start and kept a clean sheet to seal victory.
The story behind this tie, of course, was a row over FA Cup replays being scheduled during the new winter break when Liverpool had already made plans to give their players time off.
As a result they promised to play a youth team on the pitch after drawing the initial tie 2-2 — and were true to their word.
Only four of the team which started at Shrewsbury survived, including highly-rated midfielder Curtis Jones (who became Liverpool’s youngest ever captain aged 19) and 16-year-old former Fulham striker Harvey Elliott.
The rest of the starting 11 included full senior debuts for defenders Adam Lewis, 20, and Leighton Clarkson 18, as well as 18-year-old midfielder Jake Cain and Canadian striker Liam Millar, who is 20.
But Irish fans were focusing on Kelleher, who joined Liverpool from Ringmahon Rangers 2015, and whose career is really starting to take off.
He sat on the bench in last year’s Champions League final, made his debut in the Carabao Cup last September and has even been called up by Mick McCarthy for Ireland’s senior squad — but this night was something extra special as he kept a clean sheet and took his team to the fifth round.
Liverpool U23 coach Neil Critchley, left to take charge with Klopp choosing to stay away, had called on his team to play ‘the Liverpool way’ — and he got his wish.
Critchley saw it as a positive opportunity to show off Liverpool’s Academy talent, but there were plenty of negative reactions to consider, too.
Liverpool have been surprised by the level of criticism aimed at Klopp, normally a media darling, which has included back pages of the Sun accusing him being anything from a ‘disgrace’ to a ‘petulant child’ for digging his heels in over fixture scheduling and refusing to disrupt his team’s mid-season break (or his own for that matter).
But it didn’t prevent Liverpool fans turning up in their numbers to fill Anfield to capacity, perhaps the only vote of confidence the Liverpool manager required to justify his decision to stay away.
His youngsters started well, too, dominating possession in the first half as Liverpool’s U23s left Shrewsbury chasing shadows for long periods.
It didn’t help that the match kicked off 15 minutes late because of a crash on the M62, but the one saving grace for the League One side was that they reached half-time without conceding.
In truth Liverpool, for all their possession, created few clearcut chances and took half an hour to hit a shot on target as Jones’ free-kick was comfortably saved by Max O’Leary.
Curtis, however, was outstanding in terms of his all-round game, strengthening demands for him to be considered a first team contender having already scored a famous FA Cup winner against Everton in the third round.
By contrast Shrewsbury, who strangely left Jason Cummings — a two-goal hero in the original tie — on the bench, must have been relieved to reach the break.
But, incredibly, they came so close to taking the lead in the second half when Daniel Udoh, just seconds after coming on as a substitute, crossed for Dave Edwards at the far post.
The Welshman’s opportunist effort was saved by Kelleher and it proved a vital stop — because Shane Whalley’s follow-up was eventually, and dubiously, ruled out for offside by VAR.
That was heartbreaking for the visitors and especially for Whalley, a lifelong Liverpool fan who travelled to Istanbul in 2005 to cheer his team in the Champions League Final.
But it was nothing compared to the agony they faced when Ro-Shaun Williams headed a cross from the excellent Neco Williams into his own net after 75 minutes.
There were one or two nervy moments at the end for Liverpool’s youngsters but the roar that greeted an excellent catch under pressure from Kelleher in the final minute showed just how much the result meant to the Kop.
The celebrations at the final whistle were even better, a moment that Kelleher and all his young team-mates will never forget. So after all that the controversy meant nothing; because even without their star players, and even without their manager, Liverpool’s kids were good enough.
The question for Klopp now is: How many of them should he play in the next round at Stamford Bridge?
Kelleher; Williams, Hoever, Van den Berg, Lewis, Chirivella, Clarkson (Boyes 90), Cain, Elliott (Dixon-Bonner 90), Jones, Millar (Hardy 82).
O’Leary, Pierre, Golbourne, Edwards, Wiliams, Whalley(Walker 82), Lang (Udoh 57), Love, Goss (Cummings 74), Ebanks-Landell, Laurent.