Regardless of your allegiance, if you were to create a compilation of the most memorable Champions League moments of the last ten years, there is every chance that Steven Gerrard’s blockbuster strike against Olympiakos would come pretty high up in that list.
That strike, one of incredible ferocity and high quality, was also incredibly valuable. Without it Liverpool would have been condemned to eviction from Europe’s premier club competition before Christmas, and considering the historic moments that lay ahead for Rafa Benitez’s men that season, there are several very good reasons why Gerrard’s strike should be so memorable.
Whilst Gerrard will forever be linked to that final group fixture, it was the performance of a 22-year-old Liverpool academy product that had set up the comeback for Rafa Benitez’s men, and spared the Spaniard’s blushes during his first season in charge at Liverpool. Neil Mellor had been on the Liverpool scene for two years prior to his Champions League cameo, however arguably his most valuable touch in a professional career that has spanned nearly nine years was to divert Jamie Carragher’s ball into the path of the onrushing Gerrard.
Mellor’s Liverpool career was not one packed full of goals. The vast majority of his strikes came as part of developmental Liverpool sides in the League Cup, however his performance against Olympiakos was not his only moment on the big stage.
Only a few weeks prior to that cold night at Anfield, in startlingly similar circumstances, Mellor himself provided the long distance wonder strike as Liverpool saw off many of the ‘Invincible’ Arsenal side 2-1. As always with the British media, Mellor was all of a sudden very hot property, and higher honours were immediately forecast.
Complaints about his fitness record and weight problems were never far behind, however, and Mellor’s promising start to the 2004-05 season never developed. A bout of tendonitis in both knees ruled the then 22 year old out for almost a year.
A loan move to Premier League new boys Wigan followed in January 2006, but after only scoring once during his spell with the Latics, Mellor was again to go under the knife with further surgery required on each of his knees.
Inevitably, when Championship high flyers Preston North End tabled a bid for the enigmatic Mellor in the summer of 2006, Rafa Benitez was happy to let his one time prodigy leave. Having already struggled to find a reliable strike force at Anfield, Benitez chose to invest further time in the returning Kop favourite, Robbie Fowler, rather than push to keep Mellor.
Once at Preston, fitness problems continued to hamper the striker’s attempts at progress. One goal in seven appearances constituted another wasted season, and it began to appear that his chances of overcoming his long-standing knee injuries were remote.
Over the following three seasons Mellor’s injury problems finally began to settle down. Still carrying a little too much weight for some pundits’ liking, Mellor put together a run of consistent, if not earth shattering form, scoring more than ten goals in each of those three seasons. Preston themselves began to struggle. Having looked certain for promotion around the period of Mellor’s arrival, the club battled against relegation in two of those three years, missing out on a place in the play-off final in between these scraps for survival.
It is difficult to know what exactly was expected of the Preston man during his time at Deepdale, and despite reasonable showings over the last three seasons, Mellor was placed on the transfer list and loaned out to League One outfit Sheffield Wednesday last summer.
Cynics may suggest that he has finally found his level, dropping down another division, but the move to Hillsborough certainly appears to have done wonders for Mellor. Free of injury, and without the uncertainty surrounding the club’s ambitions, Mellor has scored 12 in 24 appearances thus far, guiding the Owls to a play-off place at the time of writing.
Is lower league football to be the limit of his ambitions for the rest of his career? Mellor would not be the first homegrown Premier League player to be unable to nail down a place in one of the country’s top squads, before drifting into lower league anonymity.
Mellor is not so old that he cannot change this script. At 28, time may be a little short, but in the current environment a decent run of form, on both an individual and team level, can lead to the promised land, and a return to the top flight. Should a return to the biggest stage not be possible, and with fitness concerns never too far away this may be the case, Mellor will only be able to look back on sporadic success throughout a career that has promised a lot more than it has delivered.
Then again, had he not scored against Olympiakos in December 2004 or chose not to head Jamie Carragher’s cross into the ambitiously placed Gerrard, Liverpool would almost certainly have failed to reach the 2005 Champions League final. For many Liverpool fans, this contribution is already enough to make him a legend.