As a Liverpool player, Neil Mellor played his part in one of Liverpool’s most memorable victories over Olympiacos with a goal and an assist, in a season where Liverpool ended up overturning AC Milan in a rollercoaster of a Champions League final. Mellor shared his thoughts exclusively with AmericanGambler.com on his time at Anfield, including his wonder goal against Arsenal, and why he always knew that Steven Gerrard would succeed in management. Mellor also gave his thoughts on the current crop of Liverpool players, heaping praise upon Jurgen Klopp for the transformation of Liverpool Football Club.
Your career at Liverpool really kick-started over a period of 10 incredible days. What are your memories of that goal against Arsenal?
My memories of that goal against Arsenal, I was managing an injury at the time, I was taking tablets, I was taking injections to be mobile enough to play and I was fortunate enough to start the game against Arsenal. Back then, Arsenal were one of the best sides around and they were The Invincibles the season before so we knew they were a good side and we came into the game hoping that we could produce a decent performance and on the day it was an outstanding collective effort. Player like Sami Hyypia, Steven Gerrard, Alonso and Carragher in the side – really experienced leaders out there and we needed everyone to be on form. For me, it was like a Roy Of The Rovers moment to score the winning goal so late on against a top side like Arsenal.
Have you ever scored a better goal than that?
I’ve never scored a goal that has been spoken about as much, but I’ve scored plenty of good goals back in the day but that was definitely one of my best.
You were nursing a knee injury at the time; do you think a lot of players played through injuries and that it is something that wouldn’t happen nowadays?
I think that the management then was slightly different in terms of Liverpool having a few injuries to strikers at the time and as a young player, this was my opportunity to play so I had to take the tablets and have the injections to give myself that chance whilst I wasn’t 100% and whilst not able to show my real quality, it was an opportunity that I had to take and couldn’t turn that down. Many players in that position had to get through it to play.
You were obviously playing with Steven Gerrard at the time; did you watch him in training and did he teach you to strike a ball like that?
I think that any center forward will tell you it’s all natural and that’s the case with me, being in that position it’s instinctive to finish how you want to finish so Steven wouldn’t have helped me in that sense. But where he was the inspiration was every day at training, he would make sure that he wanted to be the best and would not settle for anything less.
His standards were so high making sure that it didn’t matter if it was a training session or a match, he had to be the best that he could be to set the standard to everybody else.
He was the inspiration that said ‘I’m the captain of Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, and I’m going to be at it every single day’. He was the real inspiration with how he trained and how he performed as well.
Did he bring everyone up in training?
Yep, there was no excuse when someone with the reputation and talent of Steven Gerrard was putting 100% commitment into every training session, there’s no excuse for anyone else to not compete at those levels. It was more the inspiration that Stevie provided in terms of it would give everybody a lift knowing that he was out there on your team. You had Steven Gerrard in your team. Thinking back to Arsenal and Olympiacos, knowing that Stevie was on my team was a confidence booster as a player to me.
You followed up the goal against Arsenal with the goal against Olympiacos before setting up Gerrard for the two-goal cushion to progress. What are your memories of that game?
The game against Olympiacos was probably the greatest atmosphere that I ever experienced as a player. Of course, I experienced Istanbul but I didn’t play as I was injured and the semi-final against Chelsea, where I was injured as well. But the Olympiacos game was the real Anfield factor of ‘wow’ of what the fans can have and how that can really help.
I scored a goal after coming off the bench which was amazing but Gerrard’s goal was something quite special there, and one that fans still remember today and I think the commentary helps! A lovely cushioned header but I had the option to play the ball to Steven Gerrard or John Arne-Riise on his right foot who is left-footed, and maybe 1 out of 100 on his right foot would be on target or put it in the zone for Steven Gerrard who is capable of scoring all types of goals. So those were the two options.
I could have flicked it on into the penalty area as well, but Steven was the option and the goal that he scored is one that Liverpool fans still remember today and it was nice to be on the pitch and play a part in that because it was significant from what we went on to achieve that year. At the time, it was incredible experiencing that night.
Was that the best night of your career?
Yeh, I think that was the best night of my career as it was the most significant in terms of contributions that I made. I’ve scored goals and done this and that but it meant so much to the football club after that game because we went on to win it. Had we not won it, perhaps not, but we needed that goal and scoring and getting an assist in such an iconic game 14 years ago, that was what a young footballer’s dream was all about. Having a moment, having a memory that fans 10 or 15 years later can still remember and talk to me about, which is great.
In 2004/05, you stepped up with hero moments in the season such as Arsenal and Olympiacos. Could the same be said of Origi this year against Spurs, Barcelona, Newcastle, and Everton?
I think for Origi, he was a forgotten man at stages early on in the season but he’s shown the attitude and come up with incredible moments to contribute for Liverpool. At the end of the season, you can say Origi did this against Everton, against Newcastle, the two goals against Barcelona and the Champions League final, so it’s made him a hero in Liverpool supporters’ eyes. They’re small but vital contributions. He hasn’t played the minutes that Firmino has played, but the moments that he has had are iconic. Like myself, people talk about those moments 10 or 15 years later, and his are even more so having scored in the Champions League final.
You had an operation on both knees, which meant you didn’t play in Istanbul. Did you go out to watch the match in Turkey? Can you sum up the emotions that you went through that evening?
You have to remember that these were my mates. The guys I saw every day, the guys I ate breakfast with when I was fit I was training with them, having lunch with them, I was around these boys all the time. And to see them at half time and losing 3-0, to see my mates not humiliated but in a really bad position and fearing the worst at half time thinking ‘Oh my God, is there any way back?’, but emotions said these were the boys I saw every day, I knew that they had it in the locker and it was quite emotional when we turned it round to win the game.
My first instinct was to get on the pitch and be with the boys. The problem was that there were 69,000 Liverpool supporters in the ground and the Turkish stewards wouldn’t let me on the pitch! They said ‘No, no, no, every Liverpool fan wants to get on the pitch’, and it was only for Fernando Morientes who was with us, who was cup-tied as he had played for Real Madrid that season, showing the Turkish his passport and saying ‘I’ve won the Champions League twice’, so the stewards let him on and Morientes made sure that the other 9 or 10 of us that weren’t involved in the game all got on as well, so we were there on the podium for the famous Steve Gerrard lift which was a moment that I can live with and look back on and think ‘That was amazing’. A big thank you to Morientes!
Are there any good stories from the after-party? Who had the most beers that night?
The game finished at about one o’clock in the morning, so it was late and the boys were shattered from the game. We went back to the hotel, which was about two o’clock in the morning. Whenever we won a trophy at Liverpool (League Cup, FA Cup, Champions League), we would always put the trophy in the middle of the dance floor, we’d have a free bar, a free buffet so it was a case of filling your boots. Everyone was having a picture with the trophy and I think I lasted until about four or five o’clock in the morning. I was so tired but so made up that the boys had managed to lift the Champions League.
Did you always feel that Gerrard was going to progress into management?
I always believed that Steven Gerrard would make a success of himself whatever he wanted to do, because that’s the person he was as a player. He had that desire, that mentality to succeed and he did throughout his career. I’m not surprised to see that he’s giving management a go, I watched him as a youth coach at Liverpool with the U18s and what I loved the most about Stevie was giving the boys the winning mentality. They drew 2-2 with Newcastle U18s and he could quite easily have said ‘don’t worry boys, never mind’, but he said ‘That’s not good enough for Liverpool.
If you don’t win the game, that’s not good enough’ and it was something that the boys were learning – drawing a game is not good enough for Liverpool, you have to win games, and he was instilling the winning mentality into the young boys and no doubt he has taken that up to Rangers as well. They’re competing with Celtic, which has been a while for Rangers but I’m hoping that he can be a success and deliver a trophy or two.
How good a job has he done with Rangers to narrow that gap to Celtic?
I think that Brendan did a great job at Celtic and they were well clear for a number of years, but now I think there is a real battle. From an outsider’s point of view, I never really followed Scottish football too much, but there’s more interest there now there is a battle for the league between Rangers, Celtic and the other teams around there as well, so Steven Gerrard going up there has given myself and a lot of others interest. I want him to succeed and I don’t have an affiliation with Rangers or Celtic but I want to see Stevie have the same success as a manager that he did as a player.
Can you see him building a team to overhaul Celtic for the first time in a long time?
What you would say is that he has definitely closed that gap between Celtic and Rangers which was big. Brendan’s moved on now and Lennon’s been appointed, and it will be interesting to see if he can further close that gap and go one step more and win the title. One thing I know; he won’t be happy unless he achieves that because he has that winning mentality and he will be desperate to succeed. He’s developed players and got more out of the players, which you can see from last season, and hopefully, there will be even more to come from them next season.
There has been a lot written about and said of the relationship between Djibril Cisse and Gerrard. What was Cisse like as a character?
Djibril was a lively character; he was somebody who as a player was a really good player. As a striker he had pace, he could score goals, a French international, but the thing was in Liverpool’s dressing room, Steven Gerrard understood what the football club was all about. I was always around Gerrard, Carragher and a few of the other English players who knew what the club was all about. To be honest, I didn’t know there was any form of a rift between Cisse and Gerrard, certainly didn’t appear to be and there were no real factions that were apparent so I don’t know if that’s something that happened after the players had left, as there was no sign of it. I don’t think you can achieve anything without harmony in the squad. Djibril played the final, came off the bench and scored a pen and he was injured himself that season. We were underdogs that year as well, so the togetherness was a huge part in achieving what we did.
Just how impressive have Liverpool been this season?
I think they’ve been brilliant. They’ve been an absolute joy to watch this season. The supporters have really connected with the team and I think that’s one of the big strengths of the current team, the connection with the fans. The football has been outstanding and they’ve improved in an area where they have been vulnerable in previous seasons, defensively. Liverpool now can defend a one-goal lead, as they showed in the Champions League final, where they looked comfortable, they looked strong in that area. The front three will always score goals. This season has been phenomenal and they deserve the Champions League after coming so close in the Premier League.
Do you think they can go one better and win the Premier League next year? What do they need to do to pip Man City to the post this season?
It’s difficult to see who else can get involved the battle for the Premier League title next season. At the start of the season, Liverpool were saying we are 25 points off Manchester City and if we can close that gap and make a challenge, that would be absolutely superb. I don’t think that many people thought it would be as close as it was, but that it credit to Liverpool and the way that they really put City under pressure, and it will be a case of repeating what they did last season, and being defensively strong to put City under pressure, because City are so strong with the football Guardiola has produced. Hopefully another incredible battle with Liverpool to just pip City next time!
How important has Jurgen Klopp been to everything that Liverpool have achieved? Is it refreshing to see a club stick with one manager and believe in a plan coming through over several years?
I think he has done a magnificent job, he has connected the football club. I speak about connection, about the players are all playing for him, the supporters in the stadium are all feeding the football club and the togetherness that Jurgen has brought Liverpool has been really powerful. The progression that he has made from being a team outside the top four, now consistently finishing in the top four, competing in the Champions League and the football he has given the fans has been really exciting as well.
He has been unbelievable for Liverpool and I am delighted that he has had that success. Give the owners credit because they have given him the opportunity and really stuck by him and given him the funds to invest in the squad and expanded the stadium which has been huge for Liverpool, so I think the owners have certainly been fantastic for Liverpool, but the manager; superb.
Which young players can you see breaking through into the first team next year?
Liverpool have had a few lads that have gone out on loan, Harry Wilson has done very well for Derby in The Championship, Ryan Kent has done very well for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League – they are two players who have done extremely well. Ben Woodburn is a Welsh international and still very young and there is a lot of excitement around him. I suppose the obvious one would be Rhian Brewster who had an untimely injury for a year but a Golden Boot winner in the U17 World Cup team, but you see Hudson-Odoi who burst onto the scene from that team, so did Jaydon Sancho.
Brewster has a big future if he can listen to Jurgen and the coaches at Liverpool, and the senior players there. The inspiration comes from the latest players coming through the academy, which is young Trent Alexander-Arnold who is the one who has progressed through the academy and been absolutely superb and still so young at only 20. He’s the one who has done amazingly. Brewster is the one who really excites me because he can score goals, has the right attitude and listens to the coaching staff and Jurgen.
Have Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson completely change the way Liverpool play?
Fair play to young Trent because he has had to dislodge Clyne and then Gomes as well, and he has done so much over the last 12 months to become such an important player to Liverpool. The way that Liverpool play, they get so much from the full-backs going forward, but also defensively they are massive players for Liverpool. Robertson had 11 assists this season and Trent with 12; they are huge numbers. The energy they have going forward, the quality they have in the penalty area and also they can defend as full-backs as well, they’re excellent defensively, so they’re big players for Liverpool.
What area of the squad should Liverpool look to improve in summer? Who would be a good signing?
So many players always get linked with Liverpool, that’s always the way it is. What I would say is that Moreno and Sturridge leaving Liverpool means more coverage needed in those positions, a left full-back for Robertston who has been outstanding, and perhaps he may look at depth with Daniel Sturridge leaving as a striker. One to eleven, Liverpool are outstanding. There’s no doubt about that. There’s more to come from Keita, Lallana, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in those midfield positions, Fabinho has settled in.
You look at Liverpool’s squad and it is really strong, and I don’t think Jurgen will dip into the market unless he thinks someone could add even more quality, but Liverpool are in a position where they can attract pretty much any player in the market because of how they have performed. They’re now in a position to compete for the top trophies in the game.
When you look at the homecoming for the Champions League, there were a million fans in the streets, which shows the support for the club. I think players around the world would have seen that and want to be a part of that if they’re lucky enough to be selected by the recruitment or Jurgen Klopp.
There are lots of rumors about Nabil Fekir joining; what are your thoughts on him? Would he be a good addition?
He’s done very well for Lyon, scored a very important goal for them to progress through the Champions League group stages this season. An attacking midfield player who contributes goals. There wasn’t too much pressure on the midfield to score goals last season because the front three scored so many again. Oxlade-Chamberlain is perhaps that player, when fit, who can get goals from midfield. There is no doubt Nabil has the quality but it’s whether he can come into what is already a very competitive area within the Liverpool squad.
Likewise, would you bring Coutinho back if the option is there? He might want to join a side capable of winning a Champions League…
I think Coutinho was a great player for Liverpool and I really did enjoy watching him. He had creative influence to make things happen and of course, I was disappointed when he left. Leaving for Barcelona for whatever reason, he hasn’t shown the same quality at Barcelona that he did at Liverpool. One of the biggest compliments that you would give the current Liverpool side and Klopp, is that they didn’t really miss Coutinho. They went from competing for the top four to competing for a title without Couintho, and won the Champions League. He was a great player for Liverpool and loved watching him but he hasn’t been missed.
How do you think Coutinho will feel about Liverpool winning the Champions League?
That will be a question for him! But I think he will be happy for Alison, Fabinho and his Brazilian compatriots but maybe not so happy that his side were knocked out in the semi-finals the way that they were.
Dejan Lovren looks set to leave; does it speak volumes for where the club is at now?
I think he is a player that benefited with Van Dijk’s arrival. Whoever has partnered Van Dijk, Lovren being one of them, they have all looked great playing alongside him. I know that he has found himself out of the team because of how well Matip has played in the second half of the season. As a third or fourth choice center back, I don’t think Liverpool should be in a hurry to get rid of him because of the cover that he provides in that position.
Photo by Brandi Ibrao