As Gareth Southgate and his England players celebrated in Moscow on Tuesday night, back on Merseyside sat a young man with a smile on his face but regrets in his head.
For Joe Gomez, this could have been a golden summer. It could have featured a Champions League final and a World Cup. Trophies, glory, global exposure.
Instead, it’s been about recovery, rehabilitation. His days have been spent at Melwood with Liverpool’s medical staff, working. No rest for the wicked, or for the unfortunate.
How this young man deserves a stroke or two of good fortune. Because, at 21, Gomez has already had enough bad luck to last a lifetime.
It was in March that he damaged an ankle playing for England in a friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. A partial tear to the ligaments meant a few weeks on the sidelines, but with Liverpool running into huge fixtures at home and abroad, the Londoner made an earlier-than-expected return. He chose to play away to West Brom and at home to Stoke. It cost him.
“It wasn’t the wisest decision, looking back,” Gomez tells Goal in an exclusive interview at Liverpool’s training ground.
“I played those two games, and it was too much. I knew against Stoke that I wasn’t having my best game, but at the same time you don’t want to let yourself and the people around you down. We had a few other injuries that day so I knew that if I went off it’d use up a substitution which we might need.
“And also, psychologically, I don’t see myself as a weak-minded person. So, even though things weren’t going great on the pitch, I wouldn’t want it to look like I’m making excuses and hiding.
“It’s something to learn from. Would I do it again? It depends!”
Gomez’s courage cost him a lot. A meeting with a specialist soon after the Stoke game revealed that surgery would be required. It would rule him out of the rest of Liverpool’s season, as well as England’s World Cup campaign. He would have been in Southgate’s squad had he been fit.
“I needed the operation for the health of my ankle,” he says ruefully. “If I hadn’t had it, then the same thing would have kept happening.”
It’s a cruel blow for a player who has already battled back from the most serious of injuries, an anterior cruciate ligament tear sustained playing for England’s U21 side - under Southgate - in 2015. That cost him the best part of 18 months, but Gomez says it made this latest blow easier to take. You live and you learn.
“I know psychologically I’m pretty strong,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, but I think having the previous injury made me a stronger person. I’d have dealt with this scenario differently if I hadn’t been through that.”
Still, it must be tough watching your clubmates play in the biggest game of their lives, and then your international colleagues taking on the world?
“There are two sides to it, I guess,” he says. “On the one hand, all I wanted was for Liverpool to win the Champions League. I know how big that is for the club and the supporters. I’d have given anything for us to win that.
“But, at the same time, it’s painful not being involved. And, because I was so close, maybe a couple of weeks away from being fit, then I suppose that was frustrating. But I’m a strong believer in everything happening for a reason.
“It’s the same with England, I wish them nothing but the best. I’ve seen how much hard work and effort has gone into this World Cup, and I wish them every success.
“But, don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy sitting there watching!”
At least Gomez can look forward now. He cancelled his summer holidays to get himself fit for the first day of pre-season, working daily alongside Joel Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster. But, unlike those three, who still have a way to go, he will feature when Liverpool start their friendly programme at Chester on Saturday. He’s ready.
“I had to be fit, simple as that,” he says. “Last summer, I saw how important it was to be back for the first day of pre-season. It works in your favour to be part of the group, working from the word go.
“Every time you train, every time you play, it’s an opportunity. You have to use them while you have them.
“And, while the group is a little smaller, maybe you get even more chance to shine and to catch the eye. You have to do all you can to take your chance, because this manager has proven he is one who gives everybody an opportunity.”
Klopp, Gomez says, has been brilliant during this latest lay-off. He has been in contact through text and WhatsApp, asking for progress updates and offering emotional support.
“As a player, I appreciate that kind of thing a lot,” Gomez says. “It tells me I’m more than just a body to him, I’m a person, a human being and I’m valued by him. Everyone knows what he’s like as a person, and in a situation like that you really see it.”
Now, Gomez’s job is to catch the manager’s eye again. He did so last season, making 31 appearances in all competitions, mostly at right-back. But, with Trent Alexander-Arnold the emerging star, and Nathaniel Clyne back after his own injury nightmare, he has hefty competition.
Which begs the question, then; will he eventually move infield? Those who saw Gomez as a teenager coming through at Charlton Athletic spoke of a centre-back, a Rio Ferdinand in the making. Ferdinand was, and remains, an idol, so will the youngster look to follow in his footsteps?
“Yeah, my mindset is still probably that I will end up coming inside and being a centre-half,” he admits.
“That’s one thing that I suppose I have had to adapt in terms of my mentality. When you visualise yourself going into a game, they’re two completely different positions.
“I think I probably made the switch in my mentality last season, where I was pretty much always at right-back. But I do picture myself coming inside, and I reckon the manager does as well. When that’ll be, there’s no time on it. I’m still young, and things can happen when you least expect them as we’ve seen. In the meantime, it’s about learning the game, in both positions.
“It definitely helps make you more rounded in terms of positional play. I am learning what a centre-back wants from his right-back, and vice versa, you know? It’s good to get that perspective.
“I know if I’m playing centre-back, there are certain places where you don’t give your full-back the ball, because I’ve been the full-back! And, likewise, I’ve been the centre-back who has been wanting his full-back to come round on the cover or whatever. They’re the things you learn with experience.
“I think it’s a natural progression, a lot of centre-backs start wide when they’re young and move inside.”
Wherever his future lies, it will be at Liverpool. Klopp, clearly, is a huge fan and Gomez could not be happier at Anfield. He remembers the club handing him a new contract as he worked back from that initial knee injury, and appreciates the care and support shown to him during those difficult months. He’s mature enough and calm enough to know that in football you sometimes need to take the rough with the smooth.
It is more than three years now since he moved from Charlton. Three years of ups and downs, lessons and learning. But would he swap them?
“No,” he says. “It’s been mixed emotions of course, I have had the injuries, but I feel like I’ve bounced back. There are always question marks when you suffer a long-term injury like that, but I think I’ve answered them and I’ve hit good form again.
“Things are always fresh in the memory. So, it’s easy for me to see the back end of the season and think it was a disappointing year, but it wasn’t. I can’t summarise it through that one thing. Generally, it was a good year.
“It’s about staying level-headed and being appreciative of the chances I got and the games I played, but at the same time wanting more. That’s the way I’m looking at it this season.”
He’ll have all of Liverpool backing him along the way. It’s time this young man’s luck changed. If it does, the Reds have one hell of a talent on their hands.