TWO teenage friends died when their car smashed into a lamppost and then overturned in Wirral in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Both the driver, Alex Cole, 19, and the front-seat passenger, Sam Bencheikh, 18, were killed in the accident on the M53 exit slip road at Moreton Spur.

Three back-seat passengers, aged between 17 and 23 and all from the Wirral area, are recovering in hospital with minor injuries following the accident involving the Vauxhall Astra at about 2.50am.

The five friends were travelling home from a night in Liverpool when their vehicle careered off the carriageway.

Both Mr Cole and Mr Bencheikh were keen football fans. Mr Cole had just completed a three-year scholarship at Everton, while Mr Bencheikh was a season ticket-holder at Liverpool FC and worked voluntarily for a scheme operated by Tranmere Rovers called Football in the Community.

Last night Mr Bencheikh's family, father Azeddine, mother Susan, and older sister Nadia, 21, paid tribute to their son and younger brother, a former pupil at Calday Grange Grammar School for Boys.

Speaking from the large detached family home in Greasby, Mrs Bencheikh said her son was about to start a degree course in sports development and education at Liverpool John Moores University, after successfully completing a course at Liverpool Community College's football academy.

"He loved sport and was a great communicator," she said. "Ultimately, he wanted to teach sport to young people as a career. He visited local schools to coach children three times a week under the Football in the Community programme, and had his own disabled team.

"Sam just adored anything to do with football. It was his main life and he played it and studied it.

"He was absolutely adored by family and friends, and he much adored his nan.

"He was just suddenly taken away from us and we can't explain how we're feeling at the moment."

Mr Cole, from Moreton, was taken on by Everton FC Academy in 2001 to replace a goalkeeper who dropped out of the scheme, and was released from football training in 2003.

He was kept on the academic side of the club's scholarship scheme, through which he attended Chesterfield High School in Wirral until last month.

He was the only child of Phil Cole, 50, a forklift truck driver at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, and Bernadette, 51.

Mr Cole said: "We had a telephone call from one of Alex's friends this morning to tell us what had happened. His friend called before the police did.

"Alex was the only son we've got. This is terrible news.

"He was still under contract with Everton, but not playing with them and was doing a sports science course at a college in Formby.

"He enjoyed all kinds of sport and he enjoyed going out.

"Alex was a great boy. He was funny, he enjoyed spending time with his friends, and we will miss him."

Last night, Ray Hall, manager of Everton FC Academy, also paid tribute.

He said: "Alex was a very likeable and talented lad.

"He kept himself academically active, and came from a very supportive family who will be devastated, as we are here at the club, and our every sympathy goes out to his parents."

Firefighters spent around an hour cutting all five from the wreckage of the car. The victims were declared dead at the scene.

Inspector Paul Frodsham, of Merseyside Police, said: "Anyone who saw the accident or witnessed the black Vauxhall Astra travelling through the Wallasey tunnel is asked to contact police.

"At this stage, it is not believed any other vehicles were involved."