YOU don’t have to look far to find former Liverpool trainees these days. From Stephen Warnock, Zak Whitbread and Danny Guthrie in the Premier League, through the likes of Lee Peltier, Darren Potter, Alan Navarro, John Welsh and David Raven lower down the ladder, English football is flooded with Kirkby graduates.
Few, however, are playing better than Neil Mellor right now.
Preston North End’s eight-game unbeaten run may have ended with defeat at Leyton Orient on Saturday, but Mellor is in the form of his life. He has scored eight times already, firing the Lilywhites to the upper reaches of League One.
Speaking about his Preston’s form, the 28-year-old League One Player of the Month for September said: “It’s going well. We lost the first game, but since then we have been great.
“I’m probably feeling the best, and playing the best, I have ever done in my career. I’m enjoying it, and enjoying being a big part of the side.”
It has certainly been a struggle to get there. It is more than five years since Mellor - a prolific goalscorer for Liverpool at youth and reserve team level - swapped Anfield for Deepdale, and at one point a succession of serious knee injuries threatened to cut short his career.
“I had six operations, three on each leg, which is not an easy thing to go through,” he admits.
“There were times when I thought I was finished. When you have six operations you think ‘I can’t keep doing this’, but I worked hard with the physios and eventually started seeing good signs and I am delighted to say I’m through it all now.”
There is a sad irony in the fact that Mellor’s injury problems started just as his Liverpool career was threatening to take off.
He recalls being unable to jump by the age of 20 due to his knees, playing with the aid of injections even during his most productive Reds spell, and believes he would have earned a new deal at Anfield had he stayed fit.
“Even when I was in the side scoring goals, I was struggling really badly,” he admits. “But I couldn’t turn down the chance to play for the first team. In a way, it is amazing that I achieved that much success.”
He is not wrong. Mellor may only have made 22 appearances during his seven years at Liverpool, scoring six goals.
In terms of memories, however, he has enough to last a lifetime.
Having briefly skirted the first-team picture under Gerard Houllier during the 2002/03 campaign (he was 17th man for the 2003 Carling Cup final) and endured a frustrating loan spell at West Ham the following season, Mellor was thrust into the limelight, ironically due to injuries, in the autumn of 2004.
Once there, he seized his chance.
His first Anfield goals came in a Carling Cup win over Middlesbrough, but it is his contribution to famous victories over Arsenal and Olympiakos that would define his Reds career.
His stoppage time stunner at the Kop End sunk Arsene Wenger’s Champions, exposing the vulnerability of ‘The Invincibles’.
“Arsenal were the best around at the time, and the manner in which my goal was scored was special,” he remembers. “It was so late, and it really killed them.”
Better was to come. Against Olympiakos, he emerged from the bench with 12 minutes remaining. Liverpool required two goals to reach the Champions League knock-out stages.
Within two minutes, Mellor had scored one of them. Six minutes later, his cushioned header fell to Steven Gerrard, who slammed home one of the club’s most iconic strikes.
“Just a bit!” he says. “To have scored and then to have set up Gerrard for his screamer, and in the year that Liverpool won the European Cup again, that takes some beating.”
Liverpool fans obviously agree. Soon after, Mellor was named 90th in the club website’s ‘100 People Who Shook The Kop’.
“To feel that Liverpool fans were touched by a moment of my career is incredible,” he says.
“To me, that is them thanking me for that moment, and it gives me a real lift to think that they enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Mellor was in Istanbul five months later to see Liverpool lift the European Cup for the fifth time and has a runners-up medal, discarded by a distraught AC Milan player, as a memento.
“I was on the pitch, and celebrating in the changing rooms afterwards, which was brilliant,” he remembers.
“But the lads who got changed for the final itself flew back on a separate plane the next day, so we missed the victory parade.
“That was a big upset to me and to a lot of the other lads as well.
“I watched it on telly and I admit I had a tear in my eye.
“I felt I should have been there celebrating with them, but couldn’t. It was really upsetting.”
So what of the future?
“I want to play as high as I can.” he says. “I am 28, and I want to play back in the Premier League one day. I see some players doing it now and think ‘I could do that’.
“I would love people to see me going from Liverpool, seeing me fall down the leagues a bit, looking like my career was going nowhere, and to see me fight back.
“Hopefully I can fulfil the potential I showed at Liverpool. I feel as though I’m a better player than I was, and I know that I can score goals at a higher level. Certainly the Championship and hopefully the Premier League.
“I believe that I will play at a higher level again.
“Hopefully with Preston next year.”
And a return to Anfield one day?
“It is a strange one, but growing up around Liverpool means I wouldn’t really want to play against them.
“I wouldn’t mind playing at Anfield again for Liverpool, but not against them!”
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