‘I couldn’t cook so the canteen ladies would pack my meals’: Liverpool ace Joe Gomez opens up on adapting to life away from his family home, love for his childhood sweetheart and Jurgen Klopp telling him to lose ‘beach body’
Dressing rooms after a victory are fine places to be — they are what footballers live and work for. But at Liverpool last season it was not always like that, especially if you were a defender.
‘I remember the Man City game here,’ recalled Joe Gomez, glancing over his shoulder across Anfield.
‘We were 4-1 up with about five minutes to go and won 4-3.
Joe Gomez have been part of the Liverpool side that have been more circumspect this season
‘They had a header that hit the side-netting and you ask yourself how you would have felt if that had gone in.
‘It takes something away from the joy. It should have been easier so it’s not always nice after.’
A ticket to watch Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool was arguably the hottest in the land last season. At times, you could get a tennis score as easily as a football result.
It was thrilling but pointed to vulnerability. Liverpool drew 3-3 at Sevilla in the Champions League after leading by three after half an hour, for example. They beat Roma 7-6 on aggregate in a semi-final they had led 5-0.
‘We had a few games where we let things slip and a team that wants to win the Premier League can’t have that,’ said Gomez.
‘In Seville, we needed to manage the game but couldn’t keep the ball and got intimidated. I was like: “What is going on?”.
Gomez sat down with Football Editor Ian Ladyman ahead of Liverpool’s clash against Cardiff
‘When that happens it feels like a slippery slope and once one goes in you can start panicking. It feels like it’s out of your control and you are going to concede again.
‘Last season we struggled with set pieces and when we lost the ball we could be vulnerable.
‘We would concede a corner and think: “Please let them not score from this. Just don’t score here”. Maybe it accelerated my learning, We have all had to learn if we are going to improve.’
Gomez is still only 21 and it is rare to hear a young player talk so openly about a fundamental issue. But it is hard to argue. Really good teams don’t play on the hoof and so far this season there have been signs that Liverpool are moving to the next stage of development.
Gomez is only 21 and it is rare to hear a young player talk so openly about a fundamental issue
On Saturday they face Cardiff at home and may cut loose. But they have been more circumspect in their recent play, scoring a relatively modest 16 goals in nine league games while conceding only three.
Last Saturday at Huddersfield, Gomez played at right back in a Liverpool defence that looked resolute in a game where the team struggled to control possession.
‘We are not a less attacking team this season, it’s a matter of being conscious of game management and the manager is making sure we stay switched on,’ he explained.
‘We take pride in those games now. He used to yell at the top of his lungs. Now he doesn’t need to.
There have been signs that Liverpool are moving to the next stage of development in defence
‘So we have to continue that stubbornness and not think we have to score three or four times to win. Keep the ball better late on and make better choices. See the game out. That is what we need if we are going to challenge for the title.’
As a kid in Catford, south London, Gomez used to take the 160 bus to training at Charlton’s academy. It could be scary at night and Gomez and his mates, Kasey and Josh, used to call it the ‘frontline’.
‘It wasn’t the safest and I would be on edge sometimes,’ he nodded.
‘Somebody might want to steal your phone. It wasn’t ridiculous, no knife crime or anything, but it wasn’t always pleasant.’
Last Saturday at Huddersfield, Gomez played at right back in a defence that looked resolute
The number 75 bus from home to school was better. Largely because that was where he met his girlfriend, Tamara.
‘I didn’t have much chat, I was quite quiet,’ he said, bashfully. ‘But it was all about Blackberry messenger back then. I started messaging and talking and we got to know each other.’
This is important because if it wasn’t for Tamara, Gomez might not have coped in his early days at Liverpool. We sometimes make the mistake of presuming that wealth and a degree of fame make footballers immune to the stresses that affect other young people, but they don’t and Gomez learned this quickly.
Only just 18 when Brendan Rodgers signed him, Gomez went from the security of his family home — three sisters and one brother — to an apartment on his own in Liverpool’s Sefton Park.
Only 18 when he joined Reds, he went from security of family home to an apartment on his own
‘We just packed my car and drove up,’ he recalled. ‘Tamara stayed the first night but was at university in London. She would come up every weekend but, that apart, I was by myself.
‘It is a lot to cope with. I had no exposure to it. I couldn’t cook. I could put a pizza from Iceland in the oven but that was it.
‘So a lot of the time I would take food home from the training ground to heat up.
‘The ladies there — Carol and Caroline — would pack my meals and I would microwave them. They were brilliant to me, so nice.
Gomez might not have coped in his early days at Liverpool if it wasn’t for his girlfriend Tamara
‘You take home the lunch so it could be the same meal twice, but I didn’t care. I loved their sweet potato.
‘The biggest thing for me was coming from a family of seven and having to suddenly get used to my own company all the time.
‘You go home after training and overthink everything because you have nothing to distract you and I struggled with that.
‘I would dwell on things. I am very much a boring guy anyway. The lads here give me stick for that. So I just went home, thought about stuff and did nothing. There is never a point where you think “I don’t want to be here” because you are at an amazing club with amazing people. You have an opportunity that many kids would dream of. You know what you are doing it all for.
‘But it was hard at times, those first two years, I won’t lie.’
What Gomez doesn’t mention is the cruciate ligament injury he suffered playing for England Under 21s only seven games into his Liverpool career. He didn’t play at all between October 2015 and January 2017. Life in that apartment must have been lonely.
‘I won’t dwell on the injury as it’s behind me but back then the only release for me was when I was on the pitch or training,’ he said.
‘And when that is replaced by the physio room then it gets even harder.’
Gomez is religious and was offered help and support by Liverpool’s club chaplain Bill Bygroves. ‘He always offered for me to go round to his house and helped with the transition,’ he said.
Gomez is religious and was offered help and support by Liverpool’s club chaplain Bill Bygroves
‘This club does little things like that really well. The small details. But I guess the main thing was Tamara. In the week I would be down and would look forward to her coming up. She is here now and we live in Formby. That is the boring life the lads talk about.
‘I still took food home until last summer but now Tamara is here, so maybe not so much. But I know Carol and Caroline are still there for me if I need them!’
Gomez was clocked at a top sprinting speed of 21.6mph during Liverpool’s win at Leicester this season. Injury, it seems, has not slowed him down.
‘Virgil van Dijk is quick and he has hit some good speeds, too,’ nodded Gomez.
‘Obviously Mo Salah and Sadio Mane are fast. Mo and Virgil have bantered about having a race but I think a few of us would fancy ourselves. Not that the sports science team would allow it!
‘I think over the first 10 yards me and Virgil would be looking at Sadio and Mo’s backs. But we may claw some back towards the end.’
The young Gomez was always fast but was gangly, too, and a little uncoordinated. Having failed his first Charlton trial at the age of 10, he was soon in the system and usually playing in age group teams with boys much older.
Liverpool, encouraged by chief scout Barry Hunter, wanted to sign him when he was 16 — 18 months before he made his first team debut for Charlton.
Defender Gomez has worked hard at his football and his mental approach to the game
But his father, Gus, and long-term agent, John Morris, felt it was too soon.
At that point, Liverpool had already identified Gomez as a central defender.
Hunter and his staff were further convinced of this when they watched him battling big Cardiff striker Kenwyne Jones in a Championship game when he was only 17. But, developed by Charlton’s experienced academy heads Steve Avory and Paul Hart, the teenager was initially held back by his dislike of heading the ball.
Hart was a centre half for Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and later brought England defender Jonathan Woodgate through the youth system at Leeds.
‘He threatened to not let me play until I sorted the heading,’ said Gomez. ‘If it wasn’t for him I may not be here. He wasn’t shy about telling me. Everyone in my team knew about it!
England’s Gareth Southgate is known to have already identified him as a possible future leader
‘There are times when I found the criticisms difficult but they were the best thing for me.
‘It wasn’t just football. The way you conduct yourself, rules and attitude.
‘Heading definitely wasn’t my best attribute and my body language showed that. So I just had to change. Now I thrive on it. Back then I wasn’t how a proper defender should be.’
Gomez has worked hard at his football and his mental approach to the game. At Charlton, he was introspective if he made a mistake, even in training.
‘It affected me more than it should have,’ he nodded. ‘I would like to say I have the balance now but every mistake tests you, doesn’t it?’
Physically, the young defender has grown into his frame to the extent that Klopp instructed him to actually try and lose some muscle. ‘He called it my beach body,’ said Gomez, laughing at the memory.
With a whole summer off this year, Gomez spent precisely one week away from training ground
An ankle injury last spring required surgery and cost Gomez a place in the Champions League final and England’s World Cup squad. Asked if he watched the tournament, Gomez winced and replied only: ‘Yeah.’
That experience was clearly painful but he is firmly part of Gareth Southgate’s plans now. The England manager is known to have already identified him as a possible future leader, and he was one of the star turns in the recent 3-2 win in Spain, while BBC pundit Garth Crooks has said Gomez reminds him of the great Bobby Moore.
Gomez has politely laughed that comparison off but this is a young footballer committed to improvement. With a whole summer off this year, Gomez spent precisely one week away from Liverpool’s training ground.
‘I had a week in the Maldives and apart from that I was in,’ he smiled. ‘And that week was because of Tamara really. If not she would have eaten my head off.’
Aware that there are five Reds defenders competing for four places, Gomez is not fazed
Aware that there are now at least five Liverpool defenders competing for four places in Klopp’s team, Gomez is not fazed.
‘That level of competition was previously missing,’ he said. ‘We went through a phase that if we had injuries, all of a sudden Lucas Leiva was playing at centre back.’
Another clean sheet on Saturday would help the Liverpool cause and the transition towards dependability. It needs to come.
In the 1978-79 season, Bob Paisley’s Liverpool won the old First Division title by conceding 16 goals over a 42-game season. In 21 games at home, Liverpool scored 51 times and conceded only four. Can that ever happen again?
‘I don’t know,’ replied Gomez, blowing out his cheeks. ‘In a league with this level of competition it’s probably far-fetched — 16 is ambitious and it’s still early. But we should definitely aspire to be renowned for defending, as well as attacking.
‘The front three here has one of the best reputations in the world. If we could have that reputation at the back as well then just think what kind of team we could be.’