'Injury made me mentally stronger - I'm a different person now' - Liverpool's Joe Gomez
It might have seemed that Joe Gomez’s professional world had folded just five days after Jürgen Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool. There Gomez was: getting games at left back under the previous manager Brendan Rodgers, aged just 18 and looking the part, careering up the pitch representing England’s under-21s against Kazakhstan…
Suddenly, a twinge in his knee…worried looks, a substitution, crutches and a scan. X-rays confirmed the diagnosis dreaded by all footballers: the twinge was, in fact, his anterior cruciate ligament tearing. This happened nearly 15 months ago. Gomez hasn’t played in a competitive second of football since.
On Sunday it is almost certain he will return to Liverpool’s first team for their FA Cup third round tie at Anfield with Plymouth Argyle, with Klopp conceding on Friday morning "it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if he’s in the lineup."
At Melwood a day earlier, Gomez acknowledged the road to recovery has not been without potholes. And yet, you trust him when he insists the experience has made him a stronger person and therefore, it might make him a better player than he was before.
“It was tough at times and there were phases when I felt like everything was against me,” he admitted. “Now looking back at it, it was a big year for me to learn: to gain faith in myself. I am thankful that I came through to it and that it's behind me.
“It certainly has made me mentally stronger. I look upon things differently. I am a different person. When you have experienced something like that, you don't take things for granted any more. It gives you a different perspective. I see it as a blessing that I was able to learn from it in the way I did.”
Gomez was able to go further on the issue of entitlement, proving his conclusion is not a mere platitude – the type many in his boots might choose to serve up.
“You can get caught up in a lot of things playing for Liverpool,” he explained. “The main thing is to stay grounded. That's something I won't forget. I know it can get taken away from you in an instant with an injury like that.
“The key is to stay level headed. Not get too high with the highs. At the same time, you need to stay strong when things aren't going your way.
“I’ve realised that being healthy and having the opportunity to play isn't something that everyone has all the time. I am lucky to be able to do something I enjoy doing.”
When listening to Gomez, it is easy to forget that he is still a teenager. He sounds like he could be ten years older. He is comfortable enough in himself to speak of a religious conviction that helped him through the worst periods, like last summer when an Achilles injury set his recovery even further back.
He is praising of Liverpool’s fitness staff, Matt Konopinkski, Jordon Milsom, as well as Klopp’s look-a-like, Andreas Kornmayer, recruited from Bayern Munich, for their roles in getting him to where he is now. Meanwhile, his friendship with Danny Ings has become extremely close as a result of shared troubles. Ings sustained more or less the same injury on exactly the same week and after making his Liverpool comeback against Tottenham Hotspur in October, broke down again. “I saw how hard Ingsy worked and he didn't deserve that to happen,” Gomez says. “But if anyone can deal with it, it's him.”
Gomez’s maturity was marked at 15 when he chose to sign for Charlton Athletic rather than Arsenal or Manchester City because the pathway to the first team at The Valley came with fewer barriers. Gomez’s father is Gambian, his mother is English, he also has a twin brother and a sister. They lived in Catford and the value of being closer to home in GCSE year was understood.
Despite it being widely reported that Borussia Dortmund – and Klopp – tried to sign him from Charlton when Liverpool got there first, Gomez says the supposed approach from Germany was one that he “wasn’t too aware of,” though he describes Klopp as “a top class manager,” and someone who he considers it an “honour to play for.”
It is fair to say, indeed, that Klopp is a huge fan of Gomez. One of the main reasons why he is prepared to let Lucas Leiva leave Liverpool this January is because of the progress made by Gomez since returning to training in October. Several Championship clubs have since found their efforts to take the player on loan rejected flatly because Klopp has identified the necessity for him to spend as much time as possible on the fields of Melwood so he can absorb his manager’s very specific expectations before first team selection.
With Mamadou Sakho also on the verge of leaving the club, Gomez will become Klopp’s fourth choice centre back by February, the position he enjoys playing in the most. Joël Matip’s has been excellent for Liverpool since joining from Schalke but his availability has been hampered by injury, so there is every chance Gomez will get his chance in some league fixtures between now and the end of the season.
“There are big physical demands being in this team,” Gomez realises. “I’m back but not properly yet. There's still a lot of hard work to be done but having been out for so long I am just really grateful to have this opportunity.”