I READ a tale this week about an 18-year-old Stephen Darby’s first taste of senior football.

He was on the bench for a Champions League tie away to Galatasaray but did not get on.

Yet after a four-hour flight back from Istanbul, he was driven down to the Hawthorns and played a full game, including extra-time, as the under-18s beat West Brom in the FA Youth Cup.

“Back then the team flew straight back afterwards and he played for the youth team that night,” recalled Steve Hunter, the long-standing commentator for Liverpool’s club website.

“It was something that typified Darbs and who he is. Someone you could always rely on.”

Ask Hughie McAuley, whose success rate on the Anfield production line reads like an A list of Kop heroes.

In a quarter of century involved with the Liverpool academy, McAuley nurtured the talent of such Liverpool prodigies as Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher.

It is no surprise that Darby was the consummate young pro from day one.

McAuley said: “He was very much focused from the start and was never a moment’s trouble for anybody.

“He was an absolute model professional from a very young age. The other academy lads would look at Darbs and know there was the best model attitude-wise to base their game on.

“I had the pleasure of working with him along with Steve Heighway and Dave Shannon and he was such a sound lad. He was wonderful to get on with, had a quick personality and did everything right.

“The other kids just loved him because he was a great lad to be around.

“Tactically, he picked the game up very quickly and knew where he had to be positional-wise.

“He was a very good defender and hard to beat if you were an opposing winger.

“He worked as hard as he could and made the progress through the academy system to play in the first team. The club were patient with him because of his hard work and his chance was well deserved.”

Darby played only seven times for his beloved Reds – Hunter felt it should have been more – before loan moves to Swindon, Notts County and Rochdale that would eventually lead him to City’s door.

McAuley continued to monitor his progress and knew that he would carve out a solid career in the game, though one suddenly cut short by last year’s shattering diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

“As a human being, he is absolutely first class,” added McAuley. “I spoke to Darbs a while back and obviously it’s a very tough situation but he doesn’t change.

“He’s a fighter and always has been. It’s no surprise that he’s carried that on and done all the right things.

“He continues to face all his problems head on and is prepared to talk about this horrible condition but I wouldn’t expect any different. That’s just testament to the type of guy he is.”

Darby won back-to-back FA Youth Cups with Liverpool, as captain against Manchester United in 2006 and then in the team that retained the trophy the following year with victory over Manchester City.

Liverpool dedicated May’s success in the competition, their first since Darby’s time, to the defender who came through the Kirkby academy.

McAuley said: “You knew Darbs would turn up in every game he played at academy level.

“He was good for everyone else in the team. He rallied them, he knew when players needed that bit of encouragement – and when a rollicking was in order.

“People talk about the right way to train and to play and that message can get a bit tired as you get older. But Stephen would always get a reaction.

“He was always spot on with whatever he had to say or do to improve the team’s performance. That's why he has done a great job wherever he has been."

Liverpool will show their appreciation for Darby’s dedication and his courage in the face of such insurmountable odds when they walk out at a rammed Valley Parade.

“Darbs has earned that respect 100 times over,” McAuley told the T&A.

“If there’s one person you’d want to work with and raise money for, it would be Stephen Darby.

“He’s got tremendous support behind him with Steph and his family and he has the best wishes of everyone.

“He's been an absolutely tremendous professional. More importantly, he has also been a tremendous man.”