It's been some journey for Liverpool FC Academy striker Toni Gomes.
Two years ago he was a schoolboy in Guinea-Bissau on West Africa's Atlantic Coast, kicking a ball around on ramshackle pitches with his mates.
Now he's sat proudly with the liver bird on his chest as he looks out over the top class facilities at the Reds' Kirkby base.
Gomes is one of the most exciting talents on the books at the Academy and his story is one of making real sacrifices in order to follow his dreams.
He was 15 when he left his homeland – a former Portuguese colony – and travelled to Europe to join his father in Lisbon.
Gomes was there for just six months before Liverpool came calling. They were tipped off about his potential by an agent and invited him over for a trial in September 2014. His impact was such that he was immediately signed up.
“It was a big surprise when Liverpool asked me to come here and then asked me to stay,” Gomes told the ECHO.
“I didn't believe I'd ever find myself at the Academy of such a big club like this.
“When my agent told me I could go to Liverpool I felt a little bit nervous because I was thinking 'this is one of the biggest clubs in the world'.
“But I said to him 'okay, yeah, I will come'. I didn't even have a club in Portugal so I pretty much went from playing in Guinea to joining Liverpool. It was a big change.”
Growing up in Africa, Gomes idolised Cristiano Ronaldo. He played in the junior ranks for FC Canchungo – the local team in a town which has a population of just 6,000.
“As a child I was always playing football. It was all I ever wanted to do,” he said.
“We would play in school, at break time and after school in the street.
“There were no nice pitches like there are here. We played mostly on stones. You would get injured if you fell down.
“I was lucky I had some boots because my uncle would send me some.
“I loved watching Ronaldo. Now I look more at strikers like Luis Suarez.
“I like Suarez a lot. The way he plays, his movement and the way he scores all types of goals.
“I always wanted to be a football player. Early in 2014 I left Guinea to join my father in Portugal, he had been working there for a long time.”
When Gomez made the move to the Liverpool Academy, he did so alone and the club placed him with house parents in nearby Prescott.
The striker didn't speak a word of English. Yet, remarkably, some 15 months on he is virtually fluent.
He started off in Pep Lijnders' under-16s squad before being handed his under-18s debut against West Ham back in April.
Dutch coach Lijnders, who has since been promoted to the Reds' first-team staff, was a huge help as Gomes settled in.
“Not being able to speak the language meant it was very difficult for me at first,” he said.
“I had no idea what they were saying! I was lucky Pep was here because he speaks Portuguese. He talked to me all the time and explained things to me. He was great for me.
“I still have two or three hours of English lessons a week and I go to school in Rainhill twice a week so it's getting better.
“My team-mates help me. They give me the confidence to speak now.
“Before when I spoke some of the lads laughed at my English! Now they help me.
“I like life here because the people at this club are really professional. Everyone has made me feel so welcome.”
His father remains in Lisbon, while his mother is in Guinea-Bissau.
He hasn't seen his mum for nearly two years but is planning a trip home at the end of the season.
“It's just me here,” Gomes said.
“I have an aunt in London. She has supported me. She comes here on weekends sometimes.
“I have two half brothers and one sister. My half brothers lives in Lisbon with my dad.
“A month ago I visited them in Lisbon.
“I haven't been back to Guinea yet but I hope to go next summer.
“It's very difficult being away from my family. I do miss them.
“Sometimes Phil Roscoe (Academy head of education and welfare) will give me his phone so I can call my mum.
“Lots of professional players had difficult periods away from their families early in their career. I'm not the only one. You have to fight to be a professional player and I hope to make my family proud.”
The Portugal youth international has certainly done that so far this season having established himself as a key member of Neil Critchley's under-18s side.
The 17-year-old frontman scored a hat-trick as the young Reds came back from 3-0 down to beat Middlesbrough 4-3 in August. However, his joy was cut short by a hamstring injury which sidelined him for six weeks.
“That was a crazy day for me,” he said.
“I was so happy to score a hat-trick but then I was crying in the physio room because I knew I wouldn't be able to play for a few months.
“It was the first real injury of my career. Now that's behind me and I'm feeling good.”
Gomes, who has made two appearances for Liverpool Under-21s, has trained at Melwood on occasions this season as part of the Academy's 'Futures Group' led by first-team development coach Lijnders.
The weekly session involves the cream of the Academy crop from under-15s through to under-21s. Manager Jurgen Klopp regularly watches on from the sidelines.
“It's been a very good experience to train there,” he said.
“You go there to represent the Academy and you have to give everything you have got.
“It's a good chance to impress Jurgen Klopp. When you see he gives chances to young players, it gives you extra motivation. One day it might be you who gets picked.
“My dream is to one day be part of the first team here. To achieve that I need to eat the right food, work hard every day and do the right things.
“I love watching Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge. I watch their movement and how they get free to score goals.
“I go every game at Anfield that I can and I dream of one day playing there.”
The FA Youth Cup provides the perfect stage for Gomes to showcase his ability and he is set to lead the line when the Reds take on Ipswich Town at St Helens' Langtree Park on Wednesday night.
Critchley's side go into it on a high following a 13-game unbeaten run.
“I know how important this Cup is,” Gomes added.
“It's a big target for us and we want to show what we can do.
“With players coming back from injury, there is a lot of competition for places here now. If you don't play well then someone will be waiting to take your place.
“There is a lot of confidence in the squad. We support each other.
“Coming to Liverpool was a great move for me and I want to prove I can make it here.”
Entry to St Helens' Langtree Park to watch the Reds' FA Youth Cup third round tie with Ipswich Town on Wednesday night (kick-off 7pm) costs £5 for adults and £3 for concessions.
Source: Liverpool Echo
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