Joining Liverpool is a big step up for Joe Gomez, but the Charlton starlet is an exciting talent with the potential to succeed where other young players have failed, writes Nick Wright...
It has been a rapid rise for Joe Gomez. The defender was only three months past his 17th birthday when he was handed his Championship debut by Charlton, and less than a year later he has become Liverpool’s fourth signing of the summer.
Most young players would be overawed by such a whirlwind year, but Gomez has had to grow up fast ever since he was fast-tracked into Charlton’s U18s at the age of 13.
He went on to represent England at U16 level before becoming a key member of the U17 side who won the 2014 European Championships in Malta. In the final against Netherlands, two days before his 17th birthday, Gomez played the full 90 minutes as England triumphed on penalties and was duly named in UEFA's Team of the Tournament.
The budding youngster had already attracted attention from Premier League scouts, and his progress accelerated after he joined up with Charlton’s first team for pre-season training last summer. “I think he is going to be a great talent,” said Bob Peeters, who had just been appointed as the Addicks’ head coach. “I heard that he was a good player, but he has surprised me.”
Peeters has since been replaced by Guy Luzon in the Valley hot seat, but Gomez hasn’t looked back. The youngster made 24 senior appearances for Charlton as they secured a respectable 12th-place finish, winning their Young Player of the Year award and also earning a nomination for the Championship Apprentice of the Year gong.
Jonjo Shelvey, Carl Jenkinson and Diego Poyet are among the standout graduates from Charlton’s academy in recent seasons, but at the Valley there is a feeling that Gomez is a cut above. He signed a new contract last year and the financial rewards from his sale will be considerable – and it is with a heavy heart that he has been allowed to leave.
Gomez immediately looked at home in Charlton’s backline last season. He was thrown in at the deep end when the much-fancied Derby County visited south-east London back in August, but the youngster produced an assured performance in a 3-2 win, making more successful tackles (five) than any other player on the pitch.
Gomez has primarily been used as a right-back by the Addicks, but he is a natural centre-back and his future surely lies in the heart of defence. But while he is 6ft 2in tall with an imposing frame, he also possesses pace which has helped him adapt to playing on the right.
Despite his rookie status, watching Gomez is like watching a seasoned pro. He is cool-headed and quietly authoritative, and it is easy to understand why Premier League and European scouts have been such regular attendees at the Valley over the last nine months. While Liverpool have won the race for his signature, Arsenal, Manchester City and even Borussia Dortmund were also thought to be among his suitors.
The 18-year-old’s physical development and athleticism defy his years, and he is also strong in the tackle and enjoys having the ball at his feet. He tends to keep things simple with his passing, but discipline and maturity are desirable attributes for a young defender – and he has those in abundance.
The Catford-born teenager, now an England U19 international, is a level-headed individual whose grounded personality shines through in interviews. "It's been a great experience for me and it's nothing I would have expected when I began to be involved in the first team in pre-season,” he said of his breakthrough season in April.
"I've enjoyed it and I look forward to pushing on and using that experience to build for my future. There's still a lot of hard work for me to do."
Indeed, the hard work will have to continue at Liverpool, where Gomez will need to buck the trend for young centre-backs. Most recently, Sebastian Coates and Tiago Ilori have failed to nail down first team spots, and a look further back throws up names like Jack Hobbs, Danny Wilson and Gabriel Paletta, all of whom left Anfield after failing to make the grade.
But Gomez has the ability and temperament to be different. The unflappable youngster has breezed through the age groups for both club and country since he was 13, and a Premier League move seems like a logical next step.
The route to the first team at Liverpool will be blocked by the likes of Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren for now, but the Reds were far from convincing at the back last season and – providing he is not sent on loan for the 2015/16 season – he is likely to get opportunities. Glen Johnson’s departure and Jon Flanagan’s injury problems have also opened up space at right-back.
For inspiration, Gomez need only look at fellow Londoners Raheem Sterling and Jordan Ibe. Sterling has emerged as one of the world’s brightest young talents under Brendan Rodgers, and 19-year-old Ibe – who spent time with Gomez in Charlton’s youth teams before moving to Wycombe Wanderers – has also become a regular fixture in the first team.
Liverpool supporters may treat the arrival of another young defender with caution, but Gomez has a habit of stepping up when required, and he could prove a very shrewd acquisition indeed.