In March 2015, teenage Liverpool defender Dahrius Waldron was a substitute in a behind-closed-doors match at the club’s Melwood training ground.
A young Reds side were playing Shrewsbury Town in a game arranged to give captain Steven Gerrard match practice as he neared a return from injury.
“I came on and passed the ball to Gerrard,” Waldron tells BBC Sport. “He passed it back and I moved it forward. It was one of those moments you think to yourself: ‘I’m never going to forget this.'”
Three years later, Waldron was serving a 10-month prison sentence after a fracas outside a Manchester nightclub, his hopes of making it at Liverpool a distant memory.
Now playing at seventh-tier Stalybridge Celtic, who host Lancaster City in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup on Saturday, Waldron opens up on being spotted by the Reds at the age of 12, let go at 18, arrested at 20, and how he is rebuilding his life after prison.
“From training with the likes of Philippe Coutinho to ending up in prison not long after, the contrast was huge,” he says.
‘I am Dahrius and I play for Liverpool’
Raised in the Moss Side and Hulme areas of Manchester, Waldron did not grow up dreaming of becoming a footballer.
He only started playing in a team at the age of 10. Aged 12, he was spotted by Liverpool while at Fletcher Moss Rangers – the junior club whose former players include Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford.
Waldron would spend the next four years commuting 30 miles each way after school to Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby to train with players including Ryan Kent, who has since become a close friend and plays for Rangers, and Harry Wilson, now at Fulham.
“It felt great that I could say, ‘I am Dahrius and I play for Liverpool’,” he says.
Aged 16, and with 11 GCSEs to his name, he moved in with a family in Prescot to reduce his travelling.
After his 18th birthday, he was asked to make up the numbers for full-scale practice games at Melwood, and would share a pitch with Brazil internationals Coutinho and Lucas Leiva.
But Waldron’s time at Liverpool was drawing to a close.
With Raheem Sterling – who was two years older than him – firmly established in Brendan Rodgers’ first team, and Trent Alexander-Arnold – two years younger and already earmarked for big things – competition was fierce.
Tough decisions had to be made and Waldron was one of those released at the end of the 2014-15 season. A failed scholarship in the United States followed, and before long he was trawling the ninth and 10th tiers of English football.
Waldron struggled to find purpose and drifted from one non-league club to another – playing for Maine Road, Northwich Victoria, 1874 Northwich and Stockport Town among others in a short space of time.
Then, one night in September 2017, his life changed outside a club in Manchester.
‘My cell reeked of urine’
Waldron had not been in trouble with the police before. Growing up, he lacked a father figure but his mum Karen and three older sisters taught him the difference between right and wrong.
“My mum is strict on manners,” he says. “She’s very strong on it. I once won an award at school for the pupil with the best manners. That’s down to my mum.”
But five years ago he was involved in a fracas outside a nightclub while out celebrating a friend’s birthday.
Waldron was found guilty of violent disorder and served a total of 10 months in prison – first at Salford’s HMP Forest Bank, before completing the remainder of the sentence at HMP Risley, near Warrington.
“I had gone from playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world to prison,” he recalls. “At Risley, I was given a cell that reeked of urine and the walls were stained with human faeces.”
Liverpool had not forgotten their former player. While at Risley, he received a visit from Phil Roscoe – then the club’s head of education and welfare.
“I will never forget his words,” says Waldron. “He told me: ‘Don’t let anyone use this to define you in the future.’ He said he knew the true me.”
Kent, who Waldron visited when Liverpool loaned him to Freiburg in 2017, also stayed in touch.
Waldron was released on 9 July 2019.
“My mum and my sisters were waiting for me outside Risley,” he says.
“I wasn’t interested in celebrating. I wanted to go home, have a bath, get a hair cut. I wanted to hug my nieces and nephews – simple pleasures in life.”
Settling down and becoming a dad
Three years on, the memories of being locked up remain.
Waldron remains in touch with Jake – his cellmate in Forest Bank.
“We used to watch Football Focus on television together,” he says. “It was the highlight of our week.”
He has also kept a close connection with the Tallant family in Prescot, who treated him like “one of their own” when he lived with them for two years.
“They helped teach me to drive and even invited me on a family holiday to Portugal,” says Waldron, who has their initials tattooed on his right wrist.
“I went to see them after I was released from prison to explain what had happened. I felt I owed them an explanation. I got no sense that they might change their opinion of me. They will always be part of my life.”
Since leaving Risley, Waldron has met a partner, become a dad, and has gone from bartender to assistant manager at a Manchester restaurant.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he adds. “I was recently awarded team-mate of the year at the restaurant, which was chosen by my colleagues.
“Both my partner and I are doing well and our son will be two in February.
“Growing up, my mum did the very best she could for me and my sisters. I want to do the very best for my son.”