Whoever you asked, the prediction was the same. Neil Mellor was going to be a Liverpool legend. The kid could not stop scoring. Before he had kicked a ball in senior football, Mellor was the subject of fevered chatter among Liverpool fans in the know. As a youngster he had breezed past every test set for him, first with the youth team, then the under-19s and then the reserves, averaging a goal a game every step of the way. As a teenager he’d broken an age-group goalscoring record held by Robbie Fowler – proof if it were needed that Mellor knew how to put the ball in the net.
The only thing was, none of us had actually seen him do it. Today, any half-decent footballer worth their salt has a small anthology of goals compilations, uploaded online long before their voice has broken. Sixteen years ago, a time before YouTube even existed, a promising youngster was an open invitation for fans’ imaginations to run wild, fuelled by nothing other than terrace hearsay and spurious message-board posts. Unencumbered by the real thing, highlights reels were compiled in our minds and, sensibly enough, most Liverpool fans envisioned Mellor as a superhuman hybrid of Owen, Fowler, Rush and Ronaldo.
That would be proved wrong in time – but not before it was proved absolutely right, and in the most glorious way imaginable. In November 2004, Mellor’s senior career was a couple of injury-hit seasons old, but his early stutters hadn’t quashed the hype. So when he was picked to lead the line against Arsenal in just his second Premier League start, the stage was set.
The match itself was a thriller, marked by three goals of the highest class. Xabi Alonso struck first, latching on to a deliciously disguised layoff from Steven Gerrard to pick out the top corner from 20 yards. With the aesthetic bar set high, Arsenal promptly raised it a couple of notches, with Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira producing a whirl of one-touch passing that culminated in the captain dinking over a prone Chris Kirkland with Gallic disdain.
Then, with stoppage-time ticking away and a draw seemingly inevitable, came Mellor’s moment. A long clearance heaved into the skies was half-cleared by Sol Campbell, and suddenly Mellor was haring on to a loose ball 30 yards from goal. He let it bounce once before thumping a thunderous strike into the far corner. Cue delirium. Match won, Anfield’s new hero sprinted off, arms aloft, to take in the adulation of the Kop. Neil Mellor had finally arrived, and he was here to stay.
Unfortunately, he didn’t stay very long. Neil Mellor, goalscorer extraordinaire, scored precisely one more league goal for Liverpool. He only made a handful more appearances, and each one saw fantasy intruded on by cold hard reality. As it turned out, he wasn’t an Anfield icon in waiting but simply a busy, unpolished target man whose career was brutally blighted by injuries. He played in a stop-start run of games that winter before being sidelined for another six months with tendonitis. And that was that. He was loaned to Wigan, sold to Preston, and eventually forced into retirement aged 29, when the knee injuries became too much to bear. These days he’s a broadcaster for Sky Sports – and a very polished one at that, one of Soccer Saturday’s most engaging matchday reporters.
In any sport, there are few things more exciting than a talented youngster. But just like how a great book will invariably make for a disappointing film, they often fare best in the mind’s eye. Mellor’s career was emphatic proof of that rule – yet he also managed to flout it, too, by delivering in real life a moment as good as anything we’d dreamed up in our heads. For one night only, Mellor gave us the best of both worlds.