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It’s not too often that you come across a footballer who has more international caps than professional league appearances. But goalkeeper Kai McKenzie-Lyle is a player taking an unconventional route to the top.
Whether it’s scoring on his national team debut or treading the unfamiliar path from Barnet to Anfield, the Liverpool youngster’s fledgling career has certainly had more twists and turns than your average academy graduate.
“I’ve been lucky to have those experiences, these moments,” McKenzie-Lyle says, reflecting on his first five years in the senior game.
“At my age to say I’ve made my professional debut, to have made my international debut, to have scored on my international debut and obviously now being at Liverpool… I feel quite lucky because a lot of people’s careers don’t turn out like this.”
That professional debut arrived in somewhat surprising fashion, during his first full season with the first-team squad at former club Barnet.
Having progressed through the Bees’ youth system, McKenzie-Lyle made the step up to become second choice goalkeeper at The Hive after veteran Graham Stack suffered a long-term injury in 2015. With little chance of unseating No.1 Jamie Stephens, it appeared that a year of warming the bench was in order. But the youngster was thrust into action when he least expected it, after Stephens was sent off in an away clash with Portsmouth.
“Every time you’re on the bench you’re always thinking that you could come on whenever the keeper goes down, but in my case it was two yellow cards,” he explains.
“He (Stephens) was on one yellow card in the first half, which is quite unusual for a goalkeeper. When he made a challenge and I saw the referee walking over to him, I wasn’t even thinking in my head that I would have to come on!
“I didn’t really get a chance to take it all in until afterwards. It wasn’t the sort of emotion where I was thinking ‘I can’t wait to come on’ because you want the team to do well and with a man sent off we were at a disadvantage.
“It wasn’t the way that I imagined making my debut, but obviously I can’t say that I didn’t want to come on… I was still happy, but it was mixed emotions really.”
Fratton Park is an intimidating ground for a young goalkeeper to make his first appearance but McKenzie-Lyle acquitted himself well, despite the Bees succumbing to a 3-1 defeat.
“At the time I was thinking ‘what a place to make your debut!’ – it was probably the best place to make it, in front of 16,000 supporters,” he remembers.
“Luckily I had the Barnet fans behind me and I wasn’t down the other end! I was really nervous and then they had one shot that I tipped over the bar. After that I felt like it at least wasn’t going to be a disaster and I calmed down a bit.
“It was mixed emotions again after the game, because you go into the changing room and we’ve just lost so everyone’s pretty down. You want to be really happy that you’ve made your debut but you can’t because the atmosphere isn’t matching what you’re feeling. It was only when I got home that I could really enjoy the moment.”
It was a similar story when McKenzie-Lyle made his international debut for Guyana the following season, but with a notable twist. Despite being on the losing team once again, the 6ft 7in keeper was the star of the show – heading into the opposition penalty area to score a 120th minute goal in a 3-2 Carribean Cup defeat to Suriname.
“It was kind of strange because I wasn’t playing regularly for Barnet but I was going to be a full international,” he says, recalling the build up to that match and the pre-game training camp in Guyana.
“I’d heard my grandparents talk about Guyana but I’d never been. It was a weird experience for me but there was a lot of excitement on the way there. The flight took 20-something hours!
“It was really humid when we got there. There was no sun but you could just feel the heat and you were instantly sweating. It was like that the whole time. But it was a nice place, really tropical with rainforests.”
That tropical weather played a major part in the match itself, as Guyana took to the field in difficult conditions after a thunderstorm hit the Caribbean.
“There was torrential rain, lightning, high winds… I was thinking the game was going to be called off,” he explains.
“It should have been called off really because the ball didn’t bounce and there were puddles everywhere! But the game was played and it was a different experience – in any normal circumstances you wouldn’t have played in that.”
By full-time, the young goalkeeper was certainly glad that the game had gone ahead, despite the result.
“To be playing in front of crowds was what I really wanted because I’d been playing a lot of under-23 football where you’re not really playing in front of anyone. This match meant everything to the country, so it was a nice pressure to have.
“The conditions made the game really hard. The football in that part of the world is more physical and the referee was letting a lot of really quite bad challenges go, so it was a proper battle.
“In the 120th minute (with Guyana trailing) we won a wide free-kick, almost by the corner flag. I started edging towards the halfway line and looking towards the coaching staff, to ask them if I should go up or not. After they said yes I remember going into the box and looking around – I was almost a foot taller than everyone else in the area, including the goalkeeper!
“I was thinking that if the ball came anywhere near me then I’d have half a chance. It was delivered to exactly where I was standing, I didn’t really have to move. The ball was coming in at a nice height and I remember thinking that someone was going to clatter me, but no one moved. So I jumped, the ball came off my head, onto my shoulder and bounced into the goal!”
That moment shone the spotlight on McKenzie-Lyle, with a penalty save in the following match against Jamaica only adding to his burgeoning international reputation.
“There were a lot of articles online about it, that I was being sent by family and friends,” he reveals.
“Obviously I was still in Guyana at the time, but when I checked my phone I thought ‘oh wow’ – I think The Sun had written an article about it, loads of different media outlets had posted about it on Twitter and I was getting a few interview requests. There was quite a big buzz.”
Things have stalled somewhat on the international front for the man from Haringey, after injury cruelly saw him miss out on going to the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2019 – the first time that Guyana had qualified for the competition. But his club career is on the up, having made a surprise move from Barnet to Liverpool at the beginning of last season, thanks in part to his former Barnet team-mate Stephens.
“I remember getting a call one day from my agent, saying he’d spoken to someone he knows and that they needed some goalkeepers at Liverpool’s academy,” McKenzie-Lyle remembers.
“I found out afterwards that the coach at Liverpool had asked Jamie Stephens – who had previously played for them – about me. He obviously gave them a good report, so they invited me up for a trial.
“When I got the call they said that the club’s under-23s were flying out to Hungary the next day and asked if I wanted to go with them. Obviously I said yes, packed a bag and met them at the airport the next day. I’d never met any of them before! We were there for two weeks and played against ETO Gyor and an Austrian side in Slovakia. Then we flew back, before going to France to play Paris Saint-Germain’s academy.
“It was an enjoyable experience, everything was there that you needed – the best physios, the best sports science… it’s all elite standard so it was a nice change from the level you get in League Two.
“Then I was at home for a couple of weeks after the trial and was just waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally I got the call and drove up to sign the contract with my Dad. It was one of the best feelings.”
McKenzie-Lyle may be some way from the Liverpool starting XI, but that doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying his time in the North West and learning from some of the game’s top professionals.
“When it was the international break and I didn’t go away with Guyana, I had the opportunity to train with the first-team,” he says.
“Most of them were away, but Simon Mignolet was still there, and big players like Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne. I’ve trained with them a handful of times and they’re all really nice and welcoming.
“I had a few conversations with Mignolet and he was talking to me about gym work and things I can do to get better and improve myself. So I’m learning every day, there are always challenges and I’m pushing myself with the standard of players around me.”
So what does the future hold for the Guyanese goalkeeper, after such an exciting first few years in the game?
“My contract with Liverpool is up this month, but obviously because of the circumstances with the coronavirus no one really knows what’s going on,” he explains.
So I’ll go back in pre-season and maybe sign an extension for a few months, for me to get fit and for them to have a look at me.
“Obviously we’ll have some talks and they’ll make a decision about whether to offer me a new contract or not. Ideally I’d like my future to still be there for another season or two – to go out on loan to get half a season or a season of men’s football, and push on from there.
“But I couldn’t really have asked for things to go any better up until now. Obviously there are some things that you can’t control, but I’m grateful that I even signed my first professional contract and that I’ve been a professional as long as I have.”