In March 2015, Liverpool’s teenage defender Dahrius Waldron was a substitute in a closed-door match at the club’s Melwood training ground.
A young Reds side were playing Shrewsbury Town in a game organized to give captain Steven Gerrard match practice as he neared his return from injury.
“I went in and gave the ball to Gerrard,” Waldron tells BBC Sport. “He passed it back and I moved on. It was one of those moments where you think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to forget this.’
Three years later, Waldron was serving a 10-month jail sentence after a brawl outside a Manchester nightclub, with his hopes of making it to Liverpool a distant memory.
Now playing for seventh-tier Stalybridge Celtic, who host Lancaster City in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup on Saturday, Waldron reveals he was spotted by the Reds aged 12, left at 18, arrested at 20 and how he’s rebuilding his life after prison.
“From training with the likes of Philippe Coutinho to ending up in prison shortly after, the contrast was huge,” he says.
“I’m 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 started playing in a team at the age of 10. At the age of 12, he was spotted by Liverpool while at Fletcher Moss Rangers – the youth club whose former players include Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford.
Waldron would spend the next four years commuting 30 miles each time after school to Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby to train with the likes of Ryan Kent, who has since become close friends and plays for Rangers, and Harry Wilson, now at Fulham.
“It felt great to be able to say, ‘I’m Dachrius and I play for Liverpool,'” he says.
Aged 16 and with 11 GCSEs to his name, he moved with a family to Prescot to cut down on his travels.
After his 18th birthday, he was asked to fill in the numbers for the 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 coming to an end.
With Raheem Sterling – who was two years his senior – firmly established in Brendan Rodgers’ first team and Trent Alexander-Arnold – two years his junior and already destined for big things – the competition was fierce.
Tough decisions had to be made and Waldron was one of those let go at the end of the 2014-15 season. A failed scholarship to the United States followed and he was soon trawling through the ninth and 10th tiers of English football.
Waldron struggled to find purpose and bounced 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 smelled like urine”
Waldron had not been in trouble with the police before. Growing up, he lacked a father figure, but his mom Karen and his three older sisters taught him the difference between right and wrong.
“My mom is strict with manners,” she says. “She’s very strong about it. I once won an award at school for best mannered student. That’s because of my mom.”
But five years ago he was involved in a brawl 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 HMP Forest Bank, Salford, before serving the rest of the sentence at HMP Risley, near Warrington.
“I had gone from playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world to being in prison,” he recalls. “At Risley, I was given a cell that smelled of urine and the walls were painted with human excrement.”
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’ll never forget his words,” Waldron says. “He told me, ‘Don’t let anyone use this to define you in the future.’ He said he knew the real me.”
Kent, who Waldron visited when Liverpool loaned him to Freiburg in 2017, has also stayed in touch.
Waldron was released on July 9, 2019.
“My mum and my sisters were waiting for me outside Risley,” she says.
“I wasn’t interested in celebrating. I wanted to go home, take a bath, get a haircut. I wanted to hug my nieces – simple pleasures in life.”
To settle down and be a dad
Three years later, the memories of the incarceration remain.
Waldron stays in touch with Jake – his cell at Forest Bank.
“We used to watch Football Focus on TV together,” he says. “It was the highlight of our week.”
He also maintains a close relationship with the Tallant family in Prescot, who treated him as ‘one of their own’ when he lived with them for two years.
“They helped me learn to drive and even invited me on a family vacation to Portugal,” says Waldron, who has their initials tattooed on his right wrist.
“I went to see them after I was released to explain what had happened. I felt I owed them an explanation. I had no sense that they might change their minds about me. It will always be a part of my life.”
Since leaving Risley, Waldron has met a partner, become a dad and gone from barman to assistant manager at a Manchester restaurant.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he adds. “I was recently awarded Restaurant Teammate of the Year, chosen by my colleagues.
“My partner and I are both doing well and our son will be two in February.
“Growing up, my mom did her best for me and my sisters. I want to do the best for my son.”