Joe Gomez had been riding the crest of a wave.
A dream summer move to Liverpool from boyhood club Charlton Athletic had been followed by a Premier League debut, a run in the first-team and recognition from England U21s.
Calm and composed, the 18-year-old defender had impressed everyone with his seamless transition to life in the top-flight. He had shown why he was regarded as one of English football’s most gifted teenagers.
Yet at Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena on a Tuesday night in mid-October his world was turned upside down. A season which had promised to deliver so much was cruelly cut short.
As England U21s cruised to victory over Kazakhstan in a Euro 2017 qualifier, Gomez was involved in an innocuous challenge down near the corner flag. As he twisted on the turf, pain shot through his right knee.
“I’ve watched it back loads of times and it was just a freak thing,” Gomez told the ECHO in his first interview since the crushing setback.
“I was running alongside one of their players, we were shoulder to shoulder and he went over.
“I tried to stay on my feet but I was off balance. As my weight went on to my right leg, it bent inwards and I felt something go. The knee just gave way.
“My initial thought was ‘this is a bad one’. I was in agony but after about five minutes it started to ease off and I was thinking I might even be able to get back on. As it was late on and we were winning the game comfortably the physio said that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Walking off I knew that something wasn’t right. I felt like something had given way in my knee because I had no stability.
“When I left England I was disappointed but I didn’t know what I had done wrong. When I home went that night I wasn’t even on crutches. The hope then was that it wasn’t too serious.”
The following day Gomez reported back to Melwood to discover his fate. He was due to meet new boss Jurgen Klopp for the first time but prior to that he was sent for a scan.
The results left the youngster heartbroken - he had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. He was told he wouldn’t kick a ball again for around nine months.
“I was absolutely devastated,” he said.
“When I came back to Liverpool, I knew I wasn’t going to be fit for the manager’s first game at Tottenham but I was hoping I’d be back available before too long.
“The physio Chris (Morgan) and the doctor (Andy Massey) didn’t say anything before the scan but my knee had swollen up and I think they knew straightaway.
“When they got the results, I could tell by the doctor’s face that it wasn’t good news. To be told it was my cruciate was tough to take.”
The first phone call was to his mum Linda, who has always helped keep him grounded during his rise up the ranks.
“It was a difficult one to make,” he said.
“She was upset as well but told me to stay strong and that all the family were there for me.
“It was a shock for them because when I came out after the England game I wasn’t on crutches so they thought I was okay.”
On the same day as Gomez received that wretched news, team-mate Danny Ings also damaged his ACL during a training session at Melwood. Ings, who had made his senior England debut less than 48 hours earlier, was informed that a partial tear would rule him out for around six months.
The pair underwent surgery on the same day in London and over the past three weeks they have embarked on their gruelling rehabilitation programmes together.
A nightmare scenario for both players has been easier to deal with because they have each other to lean on.
“Having Danny there for support has really helped to keep me going,” Gomez said.
“I was gutted for him when I found out he had also done his ACL. He was flying - scoring goals for Liverpool and getting his chance with England.
“It’s been a reminder for both of us that everyone gets setbacks in football, it’s not all plain sailing.
“Neither of us wanted to be in this situation but it has really helped that we’re going through it together,
“We’ve been there for each other, spurring each other on. It’s been a big bonus having Danny for company. We’ve literally been side by side in everything.
“He’s a quality guy. Some days you come in and think ‘oh’ but we keep each other going. We pick each other up. It’s going to be a long road but we’re staying positive.”
What has also helped to lift Gomez’s spirits has been the encouraging words of Klopp. The German coach was there to meet him when he returned to Melwood after his scan.
“When I came back the manager was waiting for me,” he revealed.
“The first time I met him was when I’d just found out I’d done my ACL. He said if there was anything he could do for me and if I needed any help to speak to him.
“He was telling me to stay positive and that he was happy to wait for me to get fit again. It was nice to hear that.
“Little things like that make a massive difference. Hearing that helps you see light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’ve seen the manager every now and again since and he’s been great. When someone says you’re going to be out for such a long time you do worry whether there will be a way back.”
Three weeks on from the operation and Gomez is already making progress, The crutches have been ditched and he’s been given the green light to start driving again and step up his work in the gym.
Liverpool’s recent upturn in form under Klopp prior to last Sunday’s defeat to Crystal Palace had also helped to lift his mood.
“I saw the surgeon again on Tuesday and he’s happy with the way everything has been going,” Gomez said.
“I haven’t been able to get to the games because of my knee but I’ve watched them on TV. You can see there’s a real unity in the squad and there’s a great atmosphere around the club. Everyone is very focused on what they have to do and I’m sure the team will keep on improving.
“I’m able to do quite a lot in the gym already. I’ve started doing small squats and leg presses to get my quads back. There’s been a fair bit of muscle wastage over the past month so I can start to build that back up. I can also do boxing and stuff like that.
“I’ve not been able to use the pool so far because of the wound but I’ll be in the pool soon. It’s all about strengthening my leg, getting the swelling down and getting range back in my knee.
“I’ve also been using the time to analyse my game by looking closely at the clips. I might not be able to play at the moment but I can still learn.”
The road to full fitness is long and winding but Gomez is determined to do everything in his power to get back to where he left off.
“I’m doing all I can every day and I’m getting stronger,” he added.
“It’s the first bad injury I’ve ever had. Prior to this I’d only ever really had tendonitis in my knee and niggling problems like that.
“It’s been a difficult time but I’m trying to stay positive. I’m listening to what all the medical staff are saying.
“I know it will be next season before I play again. The danger when you do your ACL is that you rush back and end up breaking down again.
“Of course I want to get back playing as soon as possible but I can’t cut any corners with my rehab.
“Injuries like this used to end careers but players these days come back stronger and better than before. That’s what I’m focused on doing.”
Source: Liverpool Echo
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