“Elegant, soft and clever.” These are the qualities Mamadou Wad wants to emphasize about Cheick Doucouré first and foremost.

The renowned JMG academy administrator spent years observing Doucouré first hand and he does not shy away from the superlatives when it comes to describing his protégé.

“He was really appreciated as a player but also as a man. All our staff were really impressed by his human qualities, especially me," Wad tells Liverpool.com.

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Founded by Jean Marc Guillou, JMG has established itself as one of the top academies on the continent of Africa with renowned graduates that have gone on to excel in the Premier League.

First established in the Ivory Coast back in the late 1990s by Frenchman Guillou, JMG's aim was to help African talent discover their potential. Within a few years, JMG developed the likes of Yaya and Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboué and Gervinho, among others creating a golden generation for Ivory Coast.

In the early 2010s though, the academy moved location. Guillou sought out a new challenge, and relocated to Bamako in Mali, where his production line hasn't slowed down.

Among the first group of players developed in Bamako were Yves Bissouma, Diadié Samassékou and Amadou Haidara, with more emerging in European football year after year including Doucouré, who is the latest name to catch the eye.

He certainly seems to have attracted the attention of Liverpool. After failed attempts to sign Moisés Caicedo and Roméo Lavia, the club is 'stepping up' its pursuit of the Crystal Palace man, per The Independent.

Wad remembers him vividly as being a core member of JMG during the early foundation years in Bamako.

“Immediately, when he came to the trial you could tell that he was educated, humble and intelligent," Wad recalls of his first encounter.

“What stood out straight away was his very quick mind to analyze and make a decision. He wasn’t the fastest but his mind compensated for it.”

JMG functions as a boarding school, with players as young as 10 years old moving into the academy full-time in order to develop and hone their skills. Players are allowed to see their families at the weekends only.

Guillou only accepts a small group per age group working with a maximum of 12 to 14 players.

As a result, Wad describes the environment as like a second family. Players bond together like brothers and coaches take on familial roles. Wad remembers Doucouré as someone who was comfortable in that environment.

“He was sociable but he had a strong character. He didn’t really joke around or laugh. What stood out to me was his high self-confidence. He was always intelligent and measured in his actions to keep his self-control.”

Spending so much time away from home can be tough at such a young age, but Wad recalls Doucouré slotting into life at JMG with ease.

“He liked to play video games such as FIFA or PES. He was difficult to beat. He also listened to music and danced a lot, sometimes just by himself.”

“When he wanted to relax, curiously for his age, he played Sudoku, which was one of the preferred distractions of the coach [Jean-Marc Guillou] as well, but Cheick didn’t know that. He also loved to read books, which was surprising to us because not many young players do that nowadays.”

On the pitch, Doucouré was a player both his teammates and his coaches were fond of, putting in the hard graft when needed and always attentive to learn more.

"He tried to help the team in all situations," Wad remembers. "His teammates were naturally drawn to him. To me, it seemed like he was best friends with everyone, and a great model for the younger players, who especially looked up to him."

"We [JMG] gave him the conditions to think about football without any stress, and he was very conscious of the opportunity presented to him. He wanted to make the most of it."

At JMG, Guillou developed some unique methods to help his players learn the principles of the game. For most of their time in the academy, the players play barefoot in order to 'get a better grasp' of the ball and develop their technique. Only once that is achieved, a player earns the right to wear boots.

Guillou cites Brazil as the inspiration for his method, where kids play barefoot on the beaches and where the most technical footballers are produced.

Doucouré, while already skillful, benefitted from this method and embraced it.

"One of our aims was to develop an almost perfect technical control of the ball in different situations, and he was able to do that very well."

During his early years at JMG, Doucouré was also used further forward, even as a striker, which also helped him in perfecting his ability on the ball, and his awareness in front of goal.

"At first he started playing forwards and was a very efficient striker, scoring many goals and beating his opponents. But he put in a lot of effort to come back and help out his team in defensive situations as well, so we put him further back."

It's in the middle where Doucouré thrived thanks to his ability to read the game and control matches all on his own.

"He had a natural understanding for football. He was skillful and above all, intelligent. He seemed to have no limit in improving himself game after game."

Frederic Martin (academy manager) used to call him “Sebastian Veron” after he started playing in the middle because of his vision and intelligence.

Often playing against older players and sometimes in older age groups, Wad recalls how Doucouré stepped up to every challenge he faced at JMG.

"Cheick never gave up, he had the confidence in himself to believe he can reach any level and he was always doing what was necessary to reach that aim. When you needed him to, he always delivered."

Having established himself as one of the biggest prospects in his age group at JMG it was no surprise when the recognition came at international level as well.

Back in 2017, Doucouré caught the eye at the U17 World Cup, playing a role in an exciting Mali team that ended up reaching the semi-finals of the tournament. Surprisingly not a regular starter, with another JMG academy graduate Mohamed Camara (AS Monaco) preferred ahead of him, Doucouré still caught the eye, registering two assists in just 184 minutes at the tournament in total.

His most notable performance came during his only start at the tournament in the semi-finals against Spain, where Doucouré won four out of five loose balls, and made three interceptions and four recoveries as per Wyscout in a 3-1 defeat. But it wasn't just defensively where he stood out. Doucouré also completed four dribbles and two shooting opportunities for his teammates in an impressive all-round midfield performance.

That game and those glimpses shown at the tournament were enough to attract the attention of European clubs. On the back of the World Cup, Doucouré was invited on a trial to RC Lens, and joined the club just a few months later following his performances at the tournament.

"We presented him as a player similar to 'Veron' to the Sports Director of RC Lens when we proposed him to invite Cheick for a training session," Wad recalls.

"He had just turned 18 years old and he caught the eye immediately. After just two training sessions with the second team of the club, he was integrated into the first team."

It took Doucouré five games in Lens' second team to make the leap into the first team. During his first full season at the club, he featured in 35 games for the Ligue 2 side, and cruelly missed out on promotion to the top flight.

In the end, promotion was secured in Doucouré's second campaign at Lens before he went on to catch the eye in the French top flight.

In total, he made 131 appearances for the club before moving on to Crystal Palace last summer, where in a whirlwind debut campaign Doucouré was voted as the club's Player of the Season.

Now the links to Liverpool makes perfect sense, with Jürgen Klopp looking to rebuild his squad amid the departures of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson and the failure to land other targets.

But while the move to Anfield would be a significant leap in Doucouré's career, he is no consolation prize. It's a challenge Wad believes his protégé is ready to take on.

"He is naturally a great competitor. In my opinion, without a doubt, he should probably go into the starting XI of Liverpool. Even if in the beginning he has to start as a second choice because of the kind of players that are there, but he learns so fast, he will pick things up very quickly about what he needs to do and fight himself into the starting XI in no time.

"The higher he has to aim, the more he is motivated. This has always been the case with Cheick from a young age."

Playing in a team like Liverpool, where Doucouré will have more license on the ball in possession, will also elevate his game further according to Wad, and help him to show off the technical skillsets that were nurtured at JMG.

"For me, I think it's important to note he has the potential to be involved in more offensive actions as well, especially in a team like Liverpool where he will have more confidence to do that."

As for the bigger picture, Wad believes the sky is the limit for the 23-year-old.

"In my opinion, he is probably one of the best midfielders for the future, not far from the level of Yaya Touré, Patrick Vieira and other great players."

A version of this story was first published on July 20.