Upon calling time on his career in 2012, forced to wind down his playing days prior to reaching his 30s due to a serious knee injury, Neil Mellor could be forgiven for feeling as though his career had never truly taken off. This was a player, after all, who had scored a 25-yard belter on just his second Premier League start for Liverpool in a defining top-flight fixture against Arsenal.
The Anfield academy product would score just one more league goal for his boyhood club, coming in a 3-1 victory against Newcastle United, but it was on this day in 2004 when the then-22-year-old striker got off the mark in Liverpool colours in special circumstances. With what was virtually the last kick of the game, Mellor struck a one-in-a-million half-volley into the bottom corner of the Arsenal net.
It was a moment that he had no doubt dreamed of after five years with the Merseyside outfit, and it was one made all the more special by the fact that it sealed the Reds a dramatic 2-1 triumph over their rivals. The visitors, with only one win in their last eight games in all competitions heading into this Anfield showdown, simply had to hold their hands up at the quality of finish.
Mellor had been forced to wait for his breakthrough moment, being used sparingly at both Liverpool and West Ham United where he would spend the large majority of the 2003-04 campaign. Injury issues and numerous changes of management at Upton Park left the prolific scorer at academy and Under-21s level feeling somewhat unsettled, but he was back to his scoring best when running out for the Reds' reserve side at the end of that underwhelming season.
Following another disappointing injury layoff heading into the following term, Mellor finally returned to action in October and soon found his groove with two key goals against Middlesbrough in the League Cup. His reward was a starting berth in the Champions League meeting with AS Monaco, which Rafael Benitez's men lost 1-0, yet despite the defeat the Englishman was now a regular fixture in the first-team squad.
Then came that memorable moment against Arsenal. Xabi Alonso had earlier given Liverpool the lead after latching on to the returning Steven Gerrard's fine pass and drilling beyond the reach of Jens Lehmann. Against the run of play, influential midfielder Patrick Vieira levelled things up for the North London club to seemingly rescue a share of the spoils.
Mellor, still on the field after a bright spell that had seen him hit the bar and have an effort ruled out, was not willing to simply sit back and see out the remaining final few seconds, though. When the ball sat up to him, the inexperienced forward took a swing at it and picked out the one area that Lehmann could not reach. It sparked scenes of joy around the famous ground, heralding what many thought was the birth of a new club legend.
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The early praise afforded to Mellor only grew in the weeks after his first Premier League strike, as a fine cameo display in a now-famous 3-1 win over Olympiacos in the Champions League, in which he scored one and set up a late Gerrard wonder goal, helped the five-time European Cup winners progress through. Hero status was already on the brink of being attained.
Yet again injury struck at the wrong time, however, and having been ruled out for the remainder of the season in March, Mellor missed out on the chance to play his part in the most memorable of Champions League finals in Istanbul. That spell on the sidelines ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end, with a spell at Wigan Athletic - one goal in seven starts - not being enough to earn him a fresh deal at Liverpool.
Preston North End offered Mellor a Championship lifeline, but a similar barren spell - again one goal in seven - saw the man voted 90th in a poll to find the top 100 players who 'Shook the Kop' get off to a slow start to life at Deepdale. It was not until January 2007, in fact - a full five months after joining the Lilywhites - that Mellor actually made his competitive debut.
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He did eventually manage to find his groove over the next couple of campaigns, making 42 appearances in 2008-09 and 38 the following year. Alan Irvine was clearly a fan, with the ex-North End boss opting to take Mellor to Hillsborough on a season-long loan when appointed Sheffield Wednesday boss. That would prove to be the striker's final full campaign as, on his return to Deepdale, an injury picked up against MK Dons would finally prove to be too much to overcome.
So after 43 goals in 151 appearances for the Lilywhites and many happy memories during his short-lived senior spell at Anfield, Mellor called it a day. "He needs to build on today," Benitez said after the stunner against Arsenal, nearly a decade prior to the untimely retirement call. "Sometimes you score, sometimes you don't but as long as you work hard that's the most important thing."
Mellor was certainly a hard-working player, earning him the respect from each of his fellow professionals and teammates alike. Now aged 33, Mellor continues his involvement with football in his role as a pundit for Sky Sports, but it is hard not to wonder what might have been had injuries not so cruelly struck.