‘Big club’ history is littered with them; the army of promising youngsters who are plucked from the lower leagues, declared the next great wonderkid and then scarcely seen again.
They’ll either make an immediate return to the club they’ve just left – thereby often making the transfer seem a pointless exercise to begin with – or head to an outfit lower down the scale, all the time seeking to earn the longed-for ‘experience’ to help them handle a top-flight career they might never end up having, all because they are spending too much time away from it.
It’s a curious exercise, and one which everyone thought was going to be case when Liverpool signed the 18-year-old defender Joe Gomez from Charlton Athletic in the summer after he’d made his first 24 senior appearances for the Addicks last season. His 25th came at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday.
Gomez shone in Liverpool’s pre-season, and with Brendan Rodgers never one to shy away from giving youngsters their chance in his team – Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan and more recently Jordon Ibe being the prime examples of that – there were absolutely no qualms amongst supporters at his inclusion from the start at Stoke. Neither were there any nerves from the teenager himself.
Nominally a centre-back, Gomez slotted in at left-back with the composure and poise of a player who has been stationed there for a lot longer than his tender years. Born in Catford in May 1997, he came into a world in which Stig Inge Bjornebye was Liverpool’s left-back, and a greater alternative to the rugged Norwegian you could scarcely wish to see.
There was a moment early on at the Britannia when Gomez broke up a Stoke attack and stylishly launched a Liverpool one by bursting 60 yards up the pitch with the ball at his feet, and it was a simply tremendous sight to see.
Here was the youngster showcasing all the belief in his own ability which has got him this far in the game, and for the club who have bought him to do just that right now.
With the greatest of respect to a Charlton or a Derby County – who Gomez was also linked with a loan move to – would he have done that for them? Or would he have been restricted by a desire to just do the simple things well, perhaps inhibited by the knowledge that his current club only deemed him good enough for the Championship at this point in his career?
The ‘loaned out trap’ is one which plenty of Liverpool players have fallen into in the past, with promising careers in the first team cut short by temporary moves they never returned from. Jack Robinson and Dani Pacheco immediately come to mind, whilst it would be a surprise to very few if the likes of Andre Wisdom, Tiago Ilori and Luis Alberto never kicked a ball for the Reds again.
There is another side to the loan system, of course.
Ibe’s game noticeably kicked on following temporary loan switches to Birmingham City and especially Derby County in 2014, and he’s now arguably one of the first names on Rodgers’ teamsheet for fixtures such as Stoke away following the sale of Sterling.
But Ibe is an attacker, and at the time of his loan moves Liverpool already had plenty of them, which isn’t the case with good defenders.
Perhaps, then, the manager is using the example of Gomez as warnings to other, more established stars such as Alberto Moreno, Mamadou Sakho and Lucas Leiva – all of whom played in the dismal 6-1 defeat at the Britannia in May but weren’t involved on Sunday.
Moreno, especially, should see Gomez’s elevation as a gauntlet laid down given that he’s taken his direct position in the team, and it is a position that the teenager has every right to hold on to for the foreseeable future.
A star in the England Under-19s team which was previously overseen by Liverpool’s new assistant manager Sean O’Driscoll, the sky would appear to be the limit for the defender, who is the living embodiment of ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’
Plenty more challenges lie ahead of Gomez, but the great thing about confident young footballers is that they embrace challenges head on.
And that is exactly what Liverpool need their players to be doing right now, however old they are.
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