EXCLUSIVE: Remarkable story of Liverpool keeper who scored on debut and was scouted by Football Manager

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While Liverpool might have to wait another week for their Premier League season to get underway, it’s a different story for the hundreds of Football League and National League players whose latest campaign starts this weekend.

Former Reds goalkeeper Kai McKenzie-Lyle isn’t one of them. The 25-year-old is currently a free agent after spending last season with National League South side Welling United, and remains on the lookout for his next club.

“I’m just staying fit and waiting for the right opportunity,” the shot-stopper admits in an exclusive interview with the ECHO. “It’s just one of those things. I’ve been in this situation before, it’s just waiting for the right call.

“I’ve been speaking to a couple of teams but nothing concrete as of yet. Hopefully I’ll be offered a contract soon and I’ll go from there.”

Aidan Reagh (@ARDataAnalysis) / X

Inevitably, McKenzie-Lyle isn’t alone. While hundreds of professional players will be in action this weekend, there is an equally long list of uncontracted players looking to remain in the game.

Yet the London-born goalkeeper isn’t your everyday shot-stopper looking to make his name in the lower leagues. He’s actually a full international, having spent the last seven years representing Guyana, with his last competitive action coming for the Golden Jaguars in Gold Cup qualification back in June.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience. I never could have dreamed that I would be playing for Guyana and all the experiences I’ve had along the way,” he says. “It’s been great. And it’s been a good summer away with them to be fair.

“When I first started playing for Guyana, I chose to play for them because I really wanted to connect with my heritage more. To give something back to the country and to help them.

“The players over there don’t really have a pathway into Europe, so us going over there and doing well for the international team does put the spotlight on the nation in a way and the young players that need a pathway to go and play outside of Guyana. The higher we are in the rankings and the better we do in tournaments, it really gives them that platform to get the opportunities I did when I was younger.

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“Qualifying for the Gold Cup, that’s the big achievement. Going as far as we can in that, getting out of the group stages. Even qualifying for a World Cup, that’s where my own goals are with the team.

“I always want to play for my country when I get the opportunity too. I’d never been to Guyana before the call-up. I’d had thoughts about going.

“It’s my dad’s side of the family, so my grandparents on his side were born there and it’s that side of the family that are from there. I’d always wanted to go, to see family out there and connect with my heritage.

“I’m grateful for my international career for giving me these opportunities to go over to Guyana, see the country, and really connect with my heritage.”

Joining Liverpool in 2018, McKenzie-Lyle was actually already an international goalkeeper when making the move to Anfield. At that time, he had two international caps to his name and they are games he’ll never forget.

Also of Jamaican heritage, he saved a penalty against Jamaica in his second appearance for Guyana back in October 2016. But his debut against Suriname was even more memorable – because McKenzie-Lyle scored!

Alas, no famous winner à la Alisson Becker on this occasion. Rather an 120th minute header offering little consolation at a time when Guyana were already on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline. Still, it earned the goalkeeper a unique piece of history. After all, how many shot-stoppers can claim to have scored in such circumstances?

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“You know, at the time I didn’t really think anything of it because obviously we were still losing,” he admitted sheepishly. “I’ve gone up for a wide free-kick, almost in the corner. I’ve like headed it, it’s come off my shoulder and looped over the goalkeeper and gone in.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t think too much of it because we still lost the game. I wasn’t really happy. My job isn’t to score goals, it’s to keep them out at the other end.

“But when I started to see the media coverage of it and when I got back home, I realised. It’s like something no-one has ever done, for a goalkeeper to score on his international debut. It was a strange, strange feeling.

“It was strange how it unfolded too. Really strange. We were losing at the time so I was actually surprised that they wanted me to go up for the free-kick because I was thinking even if we did score then, we still had another minute or two.

“It kind of gave us a little lift anyway at the time, at least, and it helped our goal difference at the time too.

“Next game, I saved a penalty against Jamaica. That meant more to me. We played them at home. That was a good game, and the game I was probably more looking forward to, what with my connections to them.

“I knew more about Jamaica and their team. They were up there as one of the best teams in the region. I seem to be alright at them (saving penalties). It’s mainly about luck but I have quite a good record. That save is up there with one of the best moments of my career.”

McKenzie-Lyle, who started his career at Tottenham Hotspur, was at Barnet when first called up Guyana. Still only 18 at the time, he had only made one league appearance for the Bees. So how did they stumble upon the goalkeeper? Popular video game Football Manager is to thank after a researcher for the game alerted the Golden Jaguars to his eligibility.

“He (Jack Thorpe, Football Manager researcher) was working for Barnet at the time, when I was at Barnet,” he recalled. “I’d put on my Twitter that I was of Jamaican and Guyanese heritage, and I think he reached out to someone, or maybe they reached out to him to verify that.

“And then they got my contact details, and that’s how they found out I was eligible to play for them. They’re always on the lookout for players that play in other leagues that are of Guyanese heritage and can add value to the team.

“It was crazy when I did get called up because I hadn’t played much men’s senior football up until then. I was 17 or 18 at the time and was just focussed on trying to get into the Barnet first team and get some games there, get myself some experience in men’s football.

“But then I got that call and I was like thrown right in at the deep end. Almost the highest level of senior football – international football. The best players from that country. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it.”

If that wasn’t surreal enough, so too was McKenzie-Lyle’s move to Liverpool in 2018. Rejecting a new contract with Barnet, having never added to that solitary League Two appearance, he joined the Reds’ Under-23s side after a successful trial.

“It was a strange journey! Normally it probably happens the other way round, go from Spurs to Liverpool to Barnet,” he admits. “It happened in a weird way. Barnet had offered me a contract, but I didn’t want to stay there because I wasn’t playing as much as I thought I would. I’d had one substitute appearance, coming on away at Portsmouth in the league.

“I was looking for a new opportunity, hoping to play more games. It was weird how it came about. I went to a goalkeeping camp with a coach that knew coaches at Liverpool.

“They’d just happened to release quite a few goalkeepers at that time. I was out of contract. They asked if I was available to come on trial, flying to Hungary the next day I think when they called me.

“So I had to pack my bags, not knowing any of the team, and had to meet them at the airport. Then I was in Hungary with them for two weeks. I did well on trial, flew back and played PSG in a friendly in Paris. Then flew back home, signed for them and stayed with them for two years.

“It was surreal but I didn’t take it in at that moment. I was just trying to take it step by step, and do my best to be there. I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed, I wanted to feel like I’d earned the right to be there.

“I was really, really happy that they were going to offer me a two-year contract. I would never have imagined that it would happen, to go from Barnet to Liverpool Under-23s. It wasn’t even in my wildest dreams, so I couldn’t be happier to sign.”

Competing with Caoimhin Kelleher and Kamil Grabara for game time, McKenzie-Lyle knew starting opportunities would be limited at Liverpool. Ultimately, he would only make two Premier League 2 appearances during his two years with the club, as the second half of his Reds career was hampered by injury.

And while that in itself was frustrating, the goalkeeper has no regrets. After all, on occasions, he got to train with Jurgen Klopp’s star-studded first team that was just on the verge of winning every major prize.

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“It was slightly frustrating, but I made the most of the opportunity and put my all into it,” McKenzie-Lyle said. “I was injured for quite a long period of time at the back-end of the first season, and in the second season as well. I was injured for a long period of time, so that was frustrating.

“Obviously I didn’t play as much as I would have liked to, so that was frustrating as well. But I knew coming there, they had the likes of Caoimhin and Kamil. I knew they had other young goalkeepers that were more likely to play and I knew I was coming in there mainly just for training.

“Obviously if I had the opportunity to play, I could play but I knew what it was when I signed there. But obviously I was still disappointed. For a long period of time, not playing is quite tough. Just training, putting your all in, doing well, and then at the end of the week, not being able to showcase yourself on the gameday.

“But it was a good experience to be in that environment and in the games that I did play, I did well. So I can’t really have any regrets or say I was that frustrated. At the end of the day, it was a great experience.”

He continued: “I trained a couple of times up with the first team during international breaks, when I hadn’t been called up but other players had gone away with their national teams. If I didn’t go away, I would go and train with the first team and the players that were left behind.

“I also trained a couple of times when the senior players got back too, but it was few and far between. When I was at Liverpool, they already had a couple of young goalkeepers, Caoimhin and Kamil, who were training with the first team at the time. They were already up there permanently, so it was just when I got the opportunity.

“All of the senior players were good with me. They were really welcoming and good people. When I trained with the first team a couple of times, Simon Mignolet spoke to me and gave me advice.

“Areas I could work on and things I could do to maybe get to the next level, so I was grateful for that. But all of the first team players were really welcoming with all the young players coming up. Giving them advice. Things to do, things not to do, how to improve and get better.

“The first couple of times I went up there, I was training with the likes of James Milner, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana. Those ones are the first ones off the top of my head who weren’t away on international duty.

“And then when the full team were back, we’re talking Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and all those players. It’s a lot easier to play with these higher-quality players who have played at a higher level. But then facing those players, it’s 100% harder because if they see you half a yard out of position, they’re definitely going to exploit that.

“You don’t have a chance to get away with those things that you might get away with when you’re playing lower levels or with younger players. They only needed one or two chances before the ball was in the back of the net. In the Under-23s, it was maybe three, four, five or six before they’d produce a shot you couldn’t save.

“It was a good experience and I feel maybe if I had stayed longer, I would have adapted quicker. Like how I did going from Barnet to Liverpool Under-23s. It was a great experience.”

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While first team training opportunities might have been limited, McKenzie-Lyle did regularly feature alongside senior stars. A look at his two Premier League 2 appearances and you’ll see the names of Divock Origi, Nathaniel Clyne, and Dominic Solanke on the teamsheets.

Meanwhile, the likes of Curtis Jones, Nat Phillips, Neco Williams, and Pedro Chiriviella were also part of the ranks, while, by this point, Lazar Markovic had been sent to train with the Under-21s ahead of a mid-season exit to Fulham.

“At that time there were a lot of senior players that dropped down for various reasons, for minutes or they weren’t really with the first team squad,” McKenzie-Lyle explained. “So a number of them were training with us every day and playing to get more minutes, so it was a great experience to play with those players.

“They had a lot of international experience, a lot of Premier League experience, a lot of European experience. It was great to see them play and it made it easier for us, playing with those players.

“All the senior players we trained and played with were great. The likes of Dom Solanke, Origi, and Nathaniel Clyne. They were all top, top players.

“Then there’s the likes of Curtis Jones, who is probably one of the best players I’ve seen play at that level for the Under-23s, stood out for me. Harvey Elliott stood out as well. They were the standout players.

“He (Markovic) was really good too to be fair, he was really good with us as well. He always trained well, he always put in his all. And he did show his quality. At times, you could see he was levels above.

“Speaking to him and being there, he did give you little bits of advice and help the young players too. It was a great experience to have him training with us for almost a full season.”

McKenzie-Lyle was one of eight players released by Liverpool in June 2020, along with Clyne, as the Coronavirus pandemic first took hold of English football. Aged 22 at this stage, the goalkeeper concedes it was the right time to move on.

“I knew (I was leaving) when Covid was going on,” he recalled. “I came back to London for a long period of time. We were just training by ourselves.

“I got a call towards the back-end of that season when I was still there, but Covid was still going on so we couldn’t leave our houses, couldn’t train and stuff. I got a call saying they wouldn’t be offering me another deal.

“They explained it and I understood. It was my time to move on anyway because I was looking for first team football. If I wasn’t going to get it at the club, I needed to find it somewhere else because of my age and where I wanted to go in the game.

“Looking back on it, it was the right decision. I was sad to leave the club because I love the club and that’s where I wanted to be, but I needed to go and find first team football opportunities.”

McKenzie-Lyle would end up joining Cambridge United in September 2020, with club bosses promising him future opportunities to be the first-choice goalkeeper at the then League Two side. However, an unexpected promotion to League One ensured differently.

“When I went there, promotion was a goal but it wasn’t something said to me,” he said. “They were looking to stay in the league, really push on with league position and secure a spot in League Two.

“But they just had a great start. When I came in, they said, at the back-end of the season they’d look to secure their safety then give me some games to get some experience playing in League Two, and then wanted me to be the number one next season, or at least push to be number one in the next season.

“But it didn’t end up going like that because they started so well. When you’re doing well, you don’t really want to change the team. Getting promoted became the goal as the season went on. It was great to be promoted, a great experience to get promoted with that team, but obviously I didn’t play as much as I would have liked.”

McKenzie-Lyle would end up making five appearances for Cambridge in his second season at the club, before leaving on loan for National League South side Chelmsford City ahead of his switch to Welling last summer.

Now out of contract again, the 25-year-old boasts two Football League appearances to his name plus 25 in the National League since making his professional club debut eight years ago. Compare that to his 16 international caps, and it’s clear the shot-stopper finally wants to be first-choice somewhere when he gets his desired next move.

“Ultimately my goal is to get back into the Football League,” he said. “Whatever opportunities come up, if it’s an opportunity to play in the National League or National League South again, as a first-choice goalkeeper, I would 100% consider it.

“I need to play those games and build up my experience for the age I’m at. That’s what teams are looking for, I know that. But my goal would be to get back in the Football League and to try and play at as high a level as possible.”

Admittedly, McKenzie-Lyle’s career to date has been far from orthodox. A full international goalkeeper despite limited first team experience, he has been on the books of two Premier League clubs – even if his switch to Liverpool came via then-League Two Barnet.

And while it remains to be seen if he will ever force his way back into the Football League, the Guyana international’s career is one thing you’ll never be able to take away from him.

So, if ever taking part in a pub quiz and you find yourself facing the question, “Which goalkeeper scored on their international debut,” now you know the answer.

Former Liverpool shot-stopper Kai McKenzie-Lyle.

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