"I've agreed to keep communication open with [Preston North End manager] Graham Westley just in case I come across a miracle cure," began a brief statement by former Liverpool striker Neil Mellor. "But realistically, and regrettably, this is the end of my playing days."
It was sad news for the player, and more than a touch sad too for the countless Liverpool fans who will fondly remember the massive role Mellor played in the road to Istanbul and Champions League glory in 2005. In a way, though, it feels as though it has been a retirement coming for quite some time—despite that the player only turned 29 in November. His knack for finding the back of the net has kept him in the game for a decade, but it has been a career plagued by multiple serious knee injuries, injuries that have seemed to keep Mellor on the trainer's table at least as often as they've allowed him to be fit.
He came through the ranks at Liverpool under Gerard Houllier, following Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, and Steven Gerrard through the academy during the its most successful stretch in the Premier League era and leading both the reserves and u19s in goals in 2002-03. His dominance that year led to his senior debut and a bit part role in the first team that included scoring against Sheffield United in the League Cup. With the player utterly dominant at the reserve level but not seen as quite ready to play full time with the first team, the following season saw him loaned out to West Ham to further his development.
He suffered the first of a series of serious knee injuries when he returned to Liverpool for the 2004-05 pre-season, but soon regained fitness and began to work his way towards becoming a regular in the starting eleven under Rafa Benitez. After a series of cup appearances, he would confirm his arrival as a first team player with an injury time winner against Arsenal in the league in November. Ten days later he would score the winner against Olympiakos before his cushioned header for Steven Gerrard set Liverpool's captain up to give Liverpool the two-goal margin they needed to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Sadly, another knee injury would follow in March of 2005, keeping him from participating in the final stages of Liverpool's European run. That was followed by a loan to Wigan in January of 2006 in search of playing time to get his stuttering career back on track. It ended after three games with another knee injury.
With his career at the highest levels of football having suffered through countless setbacks and a growing belief that his knees would never allow him to succeed at Liverpool, the following summer saw him move to Championship side Preston. His debut that year was delayed due to a pre-season knee injury, his fourth in 24 months. A relatively injury-free stretch would last until the 2008-09 season, and in recent seasons what injuries he has picked up both at Preston and while on loan at Sheffield Wednesday in 2010-11 have been fairly minor—at least until a tackle late in December of last year by Milton Keynes striker Jabo Ibehre sidelined him.
Unable to return to action since then and with growing concerns over his long-term health, club doctors advised him to end his days as a football player. In his injury-plagued career he played only twenty-two senior games for Liverpool—and only twelve league games—yet he scored two of the club's most important goals of the 2004-05 season and set up one of the greatest strikes in the club's history on the road to European glory, making it onto the list of the 100 Players Who Shook the Kop as a result. Before his knees let him down, though, he seemed destined to go down as one of the club's greats.
Instead, for many he will be remembered rather fondly but sadly as the most important—and perhaps, in a certain light, greatest—Liverpool player to play less than even half a season for the club and an integral part of 2005's Champions League triumph. Hopefully, wherever he goes next, the future is a little easier on Neil Mellor's knees than the past ten years have been.