InterviewInspiRED, by Kodansha with Stefan Bajcetic: Meet the lover of chess, photography and independence
Stefan Bajcetic will take a seat on Liverpool's team bus, open an app on his phone and be taken back to his summers in Serbia.
A spot of chess forms part of the 19-year-old's pre-match routine. He wants to relax but also keep his mind switched on. He is good at it, too.
He claims he was the best when in the Reds' Academy set-up, and that only Mohamed Salah can beat him from the senior squad.
They are skills he has crafted from years and years of competitive duels with his deda (grandfather) during month-long visits to his dad's parents in the school holidays.
"He used to beat me every time but sometimes he let me win," Bajcetic says with a grin during a chat with Liverpoolfc.com, as part of Kodansha's InspiRED series. "Now I'm more competitive."
As you will learn from his story up to this point, Bajcetic is no normal teenager.
There is, of course, the mature-beyond-his-years midfielder who dazzled for Liverpool last season and who they 'really count on' going forward.
But then there is the down-to-earth character separated entirely from football that enjoys travelling, fashion and photography.
Having left his family, friends and home in Vigo, Spain at 16 to chase a dream, Bajcetic has had to grow up quickly.
"I'm two people," he believes. "I'm one person when I enter the AXA Training Centre. Then when I go home I try to stay off football."
Unravelling a side to Bajcetic we do not see, he says: "When I had the opportunity to have a good camera, I bought one. Since then I just love to take pictures. I have them there, sometimes I check them, sometimes I forget. But maybe one day I will see them all and think, 'That was a beautiful place' or 'I had so much fun in that location'. It's just like memories I take into my photos.
"Sometimes I just take pictures of the city if I think the light is good or I think that's a beautiful building or something. I just take it and keep it there. It's no harm to anyone."
Bajcetic considers himself to be 'an independent person'. That characteristic certainly helped when he became a Liverpool player in February 2021.
His switch from Celta Vigo happened in the blink of an eye. When the Reds' interest was followed up, he was told: 'You need to pack, you go tomorrow.'
"I said, 'Let's go' and packed," Bajcetic remembers.
This was around the time the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting everybody's lives. Early into his time on Merseyside, Bajcetic, then still 16, contracted the virus and was forced to isolate in a hotel.
"It was obviously tough to be isolated but I was calm," he says. "[I] had my family. Even though they were in Spain, I would call them. I had my girlfriend as well. It was good just watching series on Netflix!"
Then there would be an injury that delayed his start in Marc Bridge-Wilkinson's U18s.
The No.43 explains: "When I came I was recovering from an injury, so at first I was like, 'OK, I need to show why they signed me' to these players and to the coaches.
"At first, it took a while. But when the games started, I felt more confident and with time I got more confidence and built up a relationship with the players."
Despite the false starts, Bajcetic's ascension was rapid.
He travelled with Jürgen Klopp's team on their pre-season tour ahead of 2022-23 and did not look back.
Bajcetic made 19 senior appearances, scoring his first senior goal at Aston Villa, and was then voted the Standard Chartered Men's Player of the Month in January.
He was a shining light through a season with its fair share of difficult moments.
But his positive outlook and patience would be required again when that breakthrough campaign was cut short in March due to a stress response around his adductor.
He can vividly recall the feeling when the news that he was facing a long-term absence was broken to him.
"Because I had the same injury before but in the other side, when I was getting the pain, I kind of thought about that it was going to be the same," Bajcetic says. "But in my mind it was like, 'It can't be the same, I need to keep playing.'
"But I did a scan. Scans are very cruel – they always show something. I remember I was at home, they rang me and they told me, 'You have a stress response.'
"Obviously it was a tough moment but I kind of took it well, I think. I took it as an opportunity to get stronger, improve in some bits. I just tried to stay positive mentally."
Of course, there were challenging periods during his lengthy rehabilitation.
The Bajcetic that entered the training ground would often be staring out of the windows in the gym, frustratingly watching his teammates train.
"You can't stop thinking of what I would have done in that moment, I could obviously be doing that," he says. "So it's obviously tough. It's just getting to the gym and counting the days to going back."
He is now working his way back to full fitness after another injury setback. But once fit again, his ambitions are high in a second full season around a senior environment.
That said, he is humble enough to know that his development, on and off the pitch, is far from complete.
Bajcetic details: "I admire players that have a lot of discipline. I think it's something that is difficult.
"For example, in the team Mo [Salah] is very disciplined. He always eats the right things, he's always in the gym.
"In the days that there's a tough session and you are very, very tired, those days are the ones where 90 per cent of people say, 'OK, this was a tough session. I'm going home to rest.' He doesn't. He just goes to the gym, does what he has to do, even though he doesn't want to.
"That's something that I have to learn from him. Because I think on the pitch I have a lot of discipline because on the pitch I'm so competitive, I'm the opposite of lazy on the pitch.
"But outside of the pitch there are days where I need to be stronger mentally and say, 'OK, I don't want to do it but it's part of the job.'"
As the conversation draws to a natural conclusion, Bajcetic is asked what he wants to achieve as a Liverpool player. His response is sharp.
"Something that I would love to achieve is to win a trophy," he finishes.
"[It's] something that I've seen when I was [in] the Academy when they won the two cups [during 2021-22]. But I wasn't in the squad to enjoy it.
"Especially with this city, with the fans, it's something I'm looking to give to them – a trophy. I don't care which one. Any trophy is very important for the fans and it keeps the team positive.
"That's something that I would love to achieve here."