Jurgen Klopp's changed mind and the long road to Mohamed Salah's new Liverpool landmark

By Mark Jones

Mohamed Salah nearly signed for Liverpool in the winter of 2014.

Then in the summer of 2017, the Liverpool manager didn’t want him.

Salah’s journey from a useful, nippy winger to Champions League and English top-flight champion - and now the newest member of the Premier League ’s 100 goals club - is a tale that has been told many times.

But what is perhaps less remarked upon is the elements of chance that came together to make the union between this most remarkable footballer and one of the world’s most remarked upon football clubs so special.

And that the story nearly began three-and-a-half years before it actually did is one of the most fascinating aspects of it.

Because if Salah had signed for Liverpool in January 2014 then he could well have broken even more records, with Ian Rush’s club high of 346 goals perhaps not beyond him.

But he could just as easily have faded from view, seen simply as one of a number of Liverpool’s attacking signings of the time who ended up not being trusted.

***

At the start of January 2014 the Liverpool fanbase was at the height of its usual sense of excitement and agitation.

Brendan Rodgers’ side had kept pace with the rest of the top four contenders, but the squad looked a little too thin to stay ahead of Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United, all of whom were also looking up to Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea in the top three positions.

Salah had caught the eye at Basel (X00265)

With their defence unconvincing and Rodgers committed to playing in an attacking manner, Liverpool had largely been relying on the burgeoning strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the young talents Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, the midfield energy of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen and of course the influence of Steven Gerrard, albeit from a deeper position, to lead their assault.

A commitment to playing those players plus a lack of trust in their understudies - the likes of Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and the on-loan Victor Moses - had worked for Rodgers, but, as now, more is always seen as better, and so the January transfer window was a chance to usher in 31 days of angst over whether or not the Reds would add a new attacking option.

In fairness, it was clear that they had wanted one.

Rodgers had seen Liverpool gazumped by Tottenham for the signing of Willian the previous summer, with Spurs subsequently shunted out of the way themselves by Chelsea, who dangled a more lucrative offer in front of the Brazilian.

Konoplyanka had been strongly linked with the Reds (Action Images)

The Ukraine international Yevhen Konoplyanka was a name most notably being linked to the Reds, with a clause in his Dnipro contract being triggered before talks were swiftly called off by an angered club president.

And so attention turned to Basel’s 21-year-old Egyptian winger Salah, a player who had shown promise when playing against English sides in European competition.

Liverpool saw him as a useful squad addition and cover for the likes of Sterling and Coutinho, with an £8million deal in the offing.

Then Chelsea went and signed him for £11million.

"They had opened talks in October 2013,” said Salah of Liverpool’s interest, speaking in 2017 before he’d made the move to Anfield.

“Negotiations took a long time, because Basel rejected more than one offer. They felt the transfer fee was not that high. I was waiting for Liverpool because I really like Liverpool. I was eager to join them.”

But he joined Chelsea.

After Liverpool’s top-four tilt had turned into an unlikely title challenge come the end of the season, Salah was of course playing for the Blues on that fateful day at Anfield when it all fell apart.

Would things have been different if he was in red?

In truth it is more likely that he wouldn’t have been on the pitch, as Rodgers rode over the hill with the side he had trusted for the vast majority of the season, understandably so.

It fell apart for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool in 2015 (Getty Images)

The following months would see the likes of Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert arrive at Anfield in the wake of Suarez’s departure, then the following year Christian Benteke and Danny Ings came as Sterling went.

There were the successful signings too, the likes of Adam Lallana, James Milner and Roberto Firmino, but would Salah have flourished amid all that change, as well as with a manager losing his grip on the job?

It might not have seemed it at the time, but missing out on Liverpool then proved to be the best thing for his career.

***

Salah’s time at Chelsea ended up resembling that of so many other attacking players who have made the switch to Stamford Bridge at a young age.

When he was used it was usually from the bench or in shadow sides, but he did manage his first two Premier League goals for the club - the first coming as the sixth in a 6-0 hammering of Arsenal.

It was hard to make a sustained impact at a side with such vast resources though, and with a manager in Jose Mourinho who wasn’t exactly prioritising the development of attacking players.

By the start of the 2014-15 season it was clear Salah was on the outside looking in, and Mourinho had demands he wasn’t meeting.

Salah was failing to impress Mourinho at Chelsea (Corbis via Getty Images)

"I expect players to give me problems. I love problems. But a lot of them didn't and they've made it easy to choose my team for Saturday,” said the Blues boss after turning to a number of fringe players in a League Cup tie at Shrewsbury, a match largely remembered for a wild Salah effort that almost flew over the New Meadow stand.

Confirming that he was referring to Salah among others, he added: "If players that played 90 minutes two days ago were fantastic, I expect people who are not playing a lot to raise the level to create me problems."

The only problems were Salah’s though, a quick exit soon became inevitable.

***

As we know, Serie A quickly became Salah’s sanctuary.

Loans to Fiorentina and Roma allowed everyone to see the talent he possessed, before a permanent move to the latter as Chelsea seemingly washed their hands of him, no doubt aware that he was a talented player, but already possessing enough of those themselves.

Liverpool had been keeping tabs on his displays in Italy, and by summer 2017 with Champions League football secured and Jurgen Klopp stamping his authority on the team and fans, he was pretty high up on a list of potential new attacking additions, with the idea perhaps that he could play second fiddle to Sadio Mane after his impressive first season.

Klopp had been desperate to bring Brandt to Liverpool (AFP/Getty Images)

However he wasn’t on the top of the manager’s list.

Klopp had hoped to sign Julian Brandt from Bayer Leverkusen to supplement his side’s attack, and made clear his preference to the now famed transfer committee.

But at Liverpool the word of the collective is prioritised, and it was the now sporting director Michael Edwards and his transfer team who talked Klopp around to Salah.

“We were sure he can help us,” recalled Klopp last year.

“Michael Edwards, Dave Fallows and Barry (Hunter), they were really in my ear and were on it ‘Come on, come on, Mo Salah, he’s the solution!’.

“When you have 20 players on the table, different players, it’s difficult to make an early decision, but we all were convinced about it so could make the early decision so we could really get him.”

That ‘early decision’ would surely not have been reached if Klopp were not as willing to listen to others’ opinions as he is. You can think of plenty of well-known managers - including one Salah has played under - who might have remained determined that their way was the right way.

But eventually Klopp was swayed from Brandt to Salah, his wish denied for what would turn into the player of his dreams.

The pair have now carved themselves into Liverpool history, with Salah now rubbing shoulders with the three-figure Premier League greats.

That perhaps would not have happened if he’d signed for the Reds in 2014.

And it definitely wouldn’t if he hadn’t joined three-and-a-half years later.


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