Liverpool’s ‘wonder child’ scored 46 goals in a season before seven operations and was left in tears by the Champions League decision – :ORA SPORT MANING

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Neil Mellor broke into Liverpool’s first team after a feat of goalscoring for the Reds’ youth teams and in a brief but memorable spell during the miracle Champions League to Istanbul glory in 2005, he showed that there was more to his game than only goals before injuries cut short his time at Anfield and ultimately his woefully short career

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of excitement when word starts to spread about a talented young goalscorer emerging through the youth ranks.

Ground-conscious fans were well aware of the talk surrounding the likes of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Raheem Sterling long before they made their Liverpool breakthroughs and began to develop their glittering promise at the top level.

Of course, there are no guarantees that the ability to cut a swath through academy defenses will automatically translate into the cold hard currency of senior football goalscoring and history is littered with sad stories of ‘wonder kids’ who were touted as the next big thing, but it struggled under the weight of anticipation before fading into obscurity.

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Almost as unfortunate are those who were able to initially make the leap and prove their ability to deliver in senior football only for circumstances and often injuries to hinder their progress, which was the case for an Anfield youngster who found himself compared in a He was an early age for two of the game’s most iconic scorers and played an unknown but vital role in one of the Reds’ most famous triumphs before being let down by his body and seeing dreams of a career at the highest level woefully cut short.

Neil Mellor grew up dreaming of following in his father Ian’s footsteps and donning the sky blue for Manchester City, but after being rejected by the Citizens academy despite being top scorer for six consecutive seasons in his age group, he entered the ranks of Liverpool’s youth base in 1999 and soon built a growing reputation as a prolific goalscorer of rare ability. A strong and physical centre-forward in the English tradition, but with a real appreciation for space and the ability to bring teammates into the game, the Sheffield-born youngster top-scored with eight goals in just four games during the Reds’ run to The 2001 FA Youth Cup semi-finals ahead of the following season, doing the same for the club’s under-19 and reserve sides, with an impressive total of 46.

With Owen and Fowler following similar paths in recent years, there was great excitement amongst Liverpool fans when news spread of Mellor’s sure-footed exploits that the next young goal-scoring phenomenon on the treadmill would soon propel them into the first team, an enthusiasm shared by the youngster himself as he moved from the Kirkby academy to training with the first team.

“I loved the Academy,” he recalled to LFCHistory. “It was a great experience, great coaches, Steve Heighway, Dave Shannon and Hughie McAuley there. I was 16 when I went to the Academy and they hired me on a three-year scholarship. I felt like I progressed so well as a football player. The key is to improve your skills and try to become a good person. Even if you are not a football player, you want to become a decent person. They place as much emphasis on education as they do on football skills.

“It was a big step for Melwood from the Academy because suddenly you are training with players with international experience. It takes a while to adjust, but you can learn a lot from them. There’s a lot more at stake on the first team than the Academy. You certainly notice this when you are training. Everything has to be perfect. You learn different things from different players. When you train with people like Michael Owen, you learn a lot.”

In October 2002, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier felt that Mellor’s learning curve guaranteed him a place on the bench for the Reds’ Champions League group stage against Spartak Moscow and six weeks later he made his first-team debut when the French team was preparing to face Ipswich Town in a draw in the fourth round of the League Cup. Anfield needed a boost following their home defeat three days earlier to Manchester United when two shocking mistakes by Jerzy Dudek highlighted how dreams of a true Premier League title tilt were rapidly unraveling just weeks after Liverpool were unbeaten and leading the standings. table.

For Mellor, it was the big break he had been craving and working towards, and he received yet another confidence boost in the dressing room before kick-off, even if events on the field did not play out the way he had hoped.

“It was a special night, and my whole family was there,” he recalled. “I did well in reserve and felt I deserved my chance. I will always remember before the game Gerard Houllier in the dressing room randomly saying ‘Who wants to take penalties tonight?’ I had lost one in the Youth Cup semifinal, but I put my hand up. I liked taking penalties. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘You’re in the pens’. It cheered me up.

“I was poor in the first half and I was worried he was going to take me out at half-time with a goal down. The locker room’ and a few minutes into the second half, Kop End, I’m waiting for Mark Venus to make a challenge inside the box. ball to him, he brought me down, bang! Penalty! buzz.

“I went to get the ball and El-Hadji Diouf, who had been signed for a lot of money that summer and was struggling to justify his price with goals, has the ball under his arm and is saying he’s going to get it. I’m like ‘What are you doing?’ but he’s not having any of that. So I’m a guy on debut arguing with a £10m signing in front of the Kop! People probably thought ‘Who is this kid?’ I looked at Steven Gerrard, who was the captain, and he said ‘Just let him have it’ Diouf scored.

“A few minutes later, I’m one-on-one with Andy Marshall, I take him down and I swear to God he’s going to go in until he hits some grass and goes back inside the crossbar. For today, I still think he’s going in!”

Mellor was substituted soon after and Liverpool eventually knocked out the Tractor Boys after a penalty shootout to reach the quarter-finals, where a 4–3 win at Aston Villa secured a January two-legged semi-final against second-leg Sheffield United. division. The Reds’ winter of discontent continued over the festive period, with Houllier’s side mired in a winless league run that would eventually stretch to eleven league games and leave their title hopes in tatters, an injury crisis adding to the Anfield’s problems with the unavailability of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey gave Mellor a Premier League debut from the bench at Newcastle on New Year’s Day, as the Reds were beaten 1-0 to open a 12-point gap at Arsenal leader.

Liverpool had already been knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage, giving progress in the domestic cups additional importance as Houllier attempts to breathe new life into a flagging campaign and, with the Frenchman’s first-choice attack not yet ready for a comeback to the first team, Mellor suddenly found himself topping the line as the Reds faced two key away games in three days.

The first was at his father’s old haunt of Maine Road – Liverpool’s last visit before Manchester City moved to what was then known as the City of Manchester Stadium – where he played his part in the 1-0 victory secured by Danny Murphy in the 47th minute. penalty, and could have scored his first senior goal if not again for El-Hadji Diouf.

“Diouf has the ball, cuts it down the right and is on the back line. All he has to do is hit it to me and I have a three-yard tap-in. What he does? He tries to beat Peter Schmeichel at his near post and hits the side net! I always think about those two moments, the penalty against Ipswich and that chance at City. I could have scored two goals in my first two matches if it wasn’t for him!”

However, it would be the third time at Bramall Lane three days later as the Reds traveled down the Pennines to face Sheffield United in the League Cup semi-final first leg. Although Owen and Heskey were fit enough to return to the substitute’s bench, Mellor retained his place in the wing and scored the opener eleven minutes before half-time with a stealthy header from close range after Sami Hyypia had saved him from a Danny Murphy free-kick of lack. Two goals from Michael Tonge in the last quarter of an hour gave the Blades a lead to take to Anfield for the second leg, but Mellor was exuberant after scoring his long-awaited first senior goal in his hometown, saying: “This has gone too far for me! It was in front of the Liverpool crowd in the cup semi final, big time. I was so happy about it and when I’m in bed tonight I’ll be thinking it was a 30 yard screamer!”

He retained his place in the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa but, with Owen and Heskey almost fully fit again, he had just six more minutes of starting action as a late substitute in Birmingham before of the end of the season. when Houllier’s faith in his young players’ ability to save Liverpool’s drifting season began to waver. Mellor’s progress was rewarded with a new long-term contract which he signed in March 2003, the same month he was left out of the squad for the League Cup final victory over Manchester United, even though the Reds have at least secured their contribution in getting the Reds to Cardiff has been recognised.

“At the end of the day Houllier gave me my debut for Liverpool and I must be grateful and respectful,” he told Simon Hughes in the book ‘Ring of Fire’. “When we won the League Cup final by beating Manchester United, he included me in the squad of seventeen players, but only sixteen needed to be changed. I traveled with the team and trained the night before, so he told me he only needed the bench if someone got sick. Nobody gets sick hours before a final, do they? Fair play for Houllier, though. He recognized my contribution in the semi and ensured that I received the champion’s medal. It was a kind gesture.”

A Liverpool campaign that had begun with such high hopes after two seasons of astonishing promise ended in abject disappointment when Houllier’s men were defeated at Chelsea in a final showdown to decide who would claim the final Champions League berth with many fans wondering. why, in light of the Reds’ struggles in front of goal in the closing months of the campaign, the youngster – who made such a bright, if brief, impression in January and was nicknamed “Gerd” by netizens in honor of The Legend of the Goal German Gerd Müller – had no more opportunities.

The Liverpool dressing room was also in no doubt about his goalscoring prowess and self-confidence, goalkeeper Chris Kirkland said: “I think it’s fair to say that since Gregory Vignal went on loan, Neil Mellor has been the butt of some jokes. The thing about Neil is, when he scores in practice, he still celebrates like it’s a league game. He runs alone to the corner flag with his hand in the air. The guys call him Shearer because of his celebrations and he’s definitely one to watch. He’s a brilliant finisher and one of my best friends at the club.”

For Mellor, reassurance that the club believed in him enough to offer him a new contract was offset by concerns that, even with Diouf’s debut season signing record, after he spat at Celtic fans during their Liverpool’s UEFA Cup quarter-final run, continued goals for the Reds’ second string weren’t enough for Houllier to give the young striker a chance to salvage the campaign and those worries only deepened over the summer.

“There is always that nagging thing in the back of my mind – did I get the best platform to show what I can do?” Mellor admitted. “I will always remember going to Thailand for pre-season with the first team the following summer. I was flying – doing great. Then Houllier turns and asks me if I want to go to West Ham or Sunderland on loan. I knew I wasn’t on Owen’s or Heskey’s level; I didn’t expect to start games. But I always believed that if I felt lost, I would know. And by no means did I feel out of my league.”

With Houllier having made it clear that he felt a loan spell would be crucial to Mellor’s development, the 20-year-old opted for Upton Park, but his hopes of helping the newly relegated Hammers gain immediate promotion back to the Premier League have been dealt a blow when manager Glenn Roeder was sacked early on in the new season and further minor injuries meant Liverpool’s loan only appeared in 21 matches, scoring twice, before returning to Anfield before the end of his season-long loan. FA regulations prevented him from playing for the Reds’ first team but he showed he had not lost his goalscoring touch by scoring ten goals in just four games and when he was available again there was a new man in the Anfield squad. seat to impress.

Liverpool managed to salvage fourth place and Champions League qualification after another season of regression, but the Frenchman’s six-year spell on Merseyside came to a sad end soon after and he was replaced by Spanish manager Rafa Benitez, whose Valencia side have in recent years challenged the traditional dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona by winning two La Liga titles in three years, as well as the UEFA Cup. Although the Reds had already been working under continental influence for some time under Houllier, Benitez’s more hands-on approach to training camp was an eye-opener for Mellor and a big influence on the success that followed, according to the young striker.

“Things were changing in England at that time, there were a lot more continental managers and players coming in,” he told The Broken Metatarsal. “When I first went to Melwood, after practice we would go to the canteen and there were coke cans, chocolate bars… all that changed with Houllier and even more so with Rafa Benitez. Before the game we ate toast and we couldn’t even put butter on it. That’s what changed.

“Rafa was brilliant and tactically did things we had never experienced before. Houllier was only at the training ground the Friday before the game, but Rafa was there in shorts every day. He dropped by where we needed to be, in and out of possession, every warm-up, so it became ingrained, a habit, we knew exactly what was expected. I think that was demonstrated by how good our defensive record was. It was because of the hard work he did in training camp.”

Mellor’s first appearances under the Spaniard were limited to the League Cup, where, after appearing in the third round against Millwall, he started again in the following round at home to Middlesbrough and scored twice in the last 10 minutes in the end of the Kop. to take Liverpool to the quarter-finals. With new £14m striker Djibril Cisse ruled out for months after breaking his leg at Blackburn and Milan Baros not always available due to injury problems, Mellor’s third start of the season came in the Reds’ penultimate game of the Champions League groups in Monaco, and although he was unable to prevent Benitez’s charges from slipping to a 1-0 defeat, meaning they would now have to win their last game at home to Olympiacos, he retained his place in the team for defending champions Arsenal’s visit to Anfield the following weekend. It would be a day he would never forget and the start of a brief spell that helped write him into Liverpool folklore, even if it was laced with the sad irony that the serious injury problems that would eventually cut his career short were beginning to reveal themselves. themselves when it was threatening to take off.

“Arsenal were the best team in the world,” he recalled. “They were unbeaten the season before, they were the unbeaten and they won the Premier League title. They were finally beaten a few weeks earlier at Old Trafford against Manchester United, ending that incredible 49-match unbeaten run.

“The first thing I did that day when I arrived at Anfield was to go to the medical station for an injection because I was physically unfit to play. I had a very serious problem with my knee at the time, Milan Baros was out and I think Cisse was also injured.

“It was my opportunity to play and obviously I wasn’t going to turn it down. I took a painkiller shot to numb the pain, hoping that would help. I knew it would be difficult to play against Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, but the confidence I had was that I was at Anfield. I look around and see Steven Gerrard at the back, Harry Kewell on the left, Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann, who were strong in midfield, as well as Carragher and Hyypia. So I knew it was going to be a good game.”

The Reds have won just six of their 13 Premier League games so far and were already 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea, but they performed above expectations against second-placed Gunners and took a deserved lead four minutes before half-time with a goal that highlighted Mellor’s advantage. growing maturity and football intelligence. Steve Finnan’s game-changer found Harry Kewell on the left flank and when the Australian winger flicked the ball past Steven Gerrard, Mellor made a clever move into the inside left channel that opened up space for the Reds captain to feed Xabi’s breakthrough. Alonso, who fired his first goal at Anfield beyond Jens Lehmann.

The Gunners leveled twelve minutes after the break when clever play involving Lauren, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry played into the Arsenal captain, who flicked the ball over Chris Kirkland to equalise. Having lost eight times in all competitions that season, many inside Anfield felt the tide may have turned, but Benitez’s men repelled the visitors’ attempts to clinch victory and, with the game going into injury time, looked to have secured it. a respectable point before Mellor scored a dramatic late-game winner with the sort of goal that even those who watched his prolific efforts for the Reds’ junior sides might not have known he was capable.

“1-1 was a good result against that Arsenal team and I’m thinking, ‘why didn’t the manager send me off?’” he recalled. “Chris Kirkland takes the free-kick from the dead-ball line, but before he took the free-kick, I turned to Sol Campbell, who was guarding me, and said, ‘Sol, can I have your shirt after the game?’ him as a player because I didn’t like defenders, I don’t collect shirts, but strangely I asked him to in preparation for the goal. I thought the referee was going to blow the whistle at full time as soon as the free-kick was called.

“I went up to head with Vieira, who is around 1.80m and I am 1.80m, we both lost the ball. Sol Cambell and Kolo Toure go for the same ball and completely wipe out Harry Kewell. It was a long way and it was there to beat. I scored beautifully, the goalkeeper was Jens Lehman, a German international. Walk in and the raw emotion is something I will never forget. I shared the moment with Kop and the whole team came and we all hugged. My family was all in the crowd, it was against the best team, the winning goal, against the Kop: it was something I always dreamed of. It was an incredible experience and an incredible moment for me. I would have loved to have scored that goal in a cup final, but it also felt like a cup final to me because Arsenal were such a good team. It was nice to have my own moment because Liverpool fans still remember that goal today.

“After the game, I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a great night out. I got the bottle of champagne, which was nice, which I still have to this day because I was man of the match. All the boys were fussing in the dressing room and wanted to go to the city, but I was really tired and I was still living with my parents at that time. I drove home in the little Renault Clio I was driving at the time, watched Match of Day 2 and listened to Gordon Strachan talk about how Liverpool played that day with a hot Vimto in hand. That was about as glamorous as it gets.

Mellor retained his place for the next two games, a League Cup quarter-final win against Tottenham and a 1-1 draw at Aston Villa, before returning to the bench for the Champions League group decider against Olympiacos in Anfield. The vagaries of qualifying meant Liverpool needed to win 1-0 or by two clear goals to reach the knockout stages and the position was made clearer when Brazilian Rivaldo’s free-kick gave the Greek visitors a half-time lead and left the Reds demanding three unanswered after the break to progress. Substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle scored a minute after the restart, but with just a quarter of an hour remaining Mellor was brought on for Baros and within two minutes he scored one of the two goals Liverpool still needed, fighting back fastest within the range of six. yard area after goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis blocked Antonio Nunez’s header before providing the assist for Steven Gerrard’s iconic winning goal four minutes from time.

“I imagined myself scoring because we were pushing everything forward and we needed to win by two goals,” Mellor told OTB Sports. “I was very confident that I would have a chance to score and I did. For the winner, the ball came to me and I don’t know what Jamie Carragher was doing on the left wing, but that’s where Carra was.

“He hits me, I’m on the edge of the penalty area and I have a few options in my head. I control it, maybe try to turn the defender, try to take it out myself? Throw it to someone maybe running behind or I put it on the edge of the penalty area “I can only see two players when I look. I see John Arne Riise, who is left-back, and I’m thinking if I put him in his way, it’s going to be his right foot. About one in 500 to hit the target with my right foot.” .not a good option.

“Steven Gerrard is the other one, a little bit deeper but I like the captain hitting the target from there instead of Riise so I just put it in one area and obviously Stevie scores an unbelievable goal. When he scores and it’s a big moment I stand there on the edge of the area thinking celebrate with me, please celebrate with me! He just walked past me, pulled me out of the way and headed towards the corner of the Kop. I was about to be the eighth or ninth person there to celebrate, but it was a great moment and I was so grateful when I later heard the commentary on TV that described my assist as a ‘beautiful cushioned header’. one and being associated with Liverpool Football Club to do so.”

A composed, slide-ruled finish 11 days later in a win over Newcastle made it five goals in seven games to stoke hopes that Mellor would have a big part to play in the second half of the season, but it would prove to be the last goal which he has already scored for Liverpool. With knee problems causing increasing discomfort and eventually retiring surgery on both, a substitute appearance in the FA Cup third round defeat at Burnley would prove to be his final appearance of the season and last in the red shirt.

Liverpool’s roller coaster campaign saw them beaten by Chelsea after extra time in the League Cup final in Cardiff and initially missed out on qualifying for the Champions League after finishing fifth behind Everton in the Premier League before stunning the world of football by winning the fifth European Cup after a miracle victory recovered from three goals down at half-time in Istanbul against AC Milan. While Mellor and his supersub teammate against Olymiacos Florent Sinama-Pongolle weren’t involved against the Italians, they were in Turkey to be part of the unforgettable night they played such an important part in helping Liverpool to arrive, even if the experience was somewhat bittersweet.

“We feel very proud,” admitted Mellor. “We were European champions and, although Flo and I missed the last few rounds due to injury, we knew we had made a great contribution and without that contribution the club would not have qualified in the group stage. When we were on the field at the end of the match in Turkey, we knew we had contributed. But also other players, who played against teams like Leverkusen and Juve, but not in the final. It was a real squadron effort.

“We watched the game from the directors’ box and entered the field after denouncing a commissioner, Morientes flying over a commissioner – that’s another story. AC Milan got their medals and then it was Liverpool’s turn, so we’re just hovering on the podium. They all get their medals and step onto the podium next to the cup, so Stevie does. And since Stevie is about to take the podium, for whatever reason, we could join them. Pellegrino led the way and said: ‘look, there are five AC Milan medals here, anyone want one? I was behind him and I said ‘I’ll get one of them, no problem!’ So Maldini and Shevchenko left their medals behind. We went up to the podium and celebrated, but it was a fiasco with the medals. UEFA only had 25 of them and that meant that some of us, myself included, missed out on getting the winner. I still don’t have one. The club gave me a small replica of the trophy.

“We were put on a different flight to the players who took part in the final and when the first team plane landed they were taken to Melwood straight from the runway runway. No one in our group knew what we were supposed to do. Salif Diao hailed a taxi and drove straight back to Melwood and was able to join all the other players in celebrations. But no one else followed him. We were told they would wait for us but the police intervened and said they could no longer hold the bus in Melwood as there were a million people in the streets of Liverpool. Apparently Rafa and Stevie were trying to make the bus wait, but it was impossible.

“I had family and friends in the crowd waiting to see me, but they never got that opportunity because by the time I got back to Melwood, the bus had already left. David Raven and Darren Potter took a little longer and Frank McParland took them to the Arkles pub near Anfield where they jumped on the bus. But I came home to Altrincham in tears and watched it all on television. I still lived with my mum and dad but they were in Liverpool waiting to see me. It was a really sad way to end what could have been an amazing couple of days to be honest and it really bummed me out.

By the time Mellor completed his rehabilitation and returned to fitness the following autumn, Benitez had already bolstered his front-line by adding Peter Crouch to Fernando Morientes, who had joined earlier in the year and in January 2006 joined Wigan Athletic on loan, but despite after scoring a late winner on his debut against Middlesbrough, ongoing injury problems prevented him from making just a handful of appearances for the Latics. Liverpool sold him to Preston North End the following summer, but the long-term knee injury prevented Mellor from being able to keep fit to establish himself as a regular option for the Lancashire side and, after a season-long loan to League One Sheffield Wednesday in 2010/11, which saw him score a respectable 20 goals in 43 appearances, he was forced to announce his retirement in May 2012 aged just 29.

A successful career in football media followed, where Mellor is a regular contributor to LFC TV and Sky Sports and, despite the chagrin that injuries prevented him from achieving everything on the pitch, his early exploits suggested he was capable, his love and passion for the game – as well as the club that gave him his big break – is never far from the surface.

He said: “I’m very lucky because there are players out there who have played, say, four or five hundred games and find it difficult to pinpoint their best moment. The last minute win at the end of the Kop against Arsenal was a Roy-Of-The-Rovers moment for me, but I feel that the match against Olympiakos meant so much more to the team and the history of the club, what we went through . catch up. The fans and the atmosphere that night and how we changed everything was my best experience as a player.

“I had seven operations in total – six separate ones when I was at Liverpool – and the first surgeon said I had an 80% chance of returning to the Premier League. So I woke up from surgery and he said ‘It’s more like 50-50’ because he didn’t realize how much damage there was to my knee. Was hard. It was the fact that I just couldn’t feel fully fit. There were times when I was in so much pain that I couldn’t even run for the ball. Even when I scored against Arsenal, Olympiacos, I was having injections to control the pain in my knees. I’ve always felt this undermined me throughout my career.

“I’m grateful that I had some moments, I would love to sit here and say I played 400,500 games for Liverpool, I won this, I won that, but I had some moments where the fans can say, ‘I still remember that’. A lot of players leave football clubs and burn their bridges, fans upset, teammates upset, but for me, when I left Liverpool I had a great relationship with my teammates, a great relationship with the fans, so I can come back and cheer the team on. current.

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