Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is easy to root for. He’s pretty good at football and is a glass-half-full, just overall good dude.
He turned Liverpool doubters into believers with his big game heroics after signing at the start of the 2017-2018 campaign (“he can hit one, ohhh he can hit one!”), broke Red hearts after suffering a devastating ACL injury in the run in and inspired a fanbase with his positive and spirited fight to recovery throughout last season.
However, the strength of character to soldier through over a year of rehabilitation masked the struggle the 26-year-old went through having to watch from the sideline as his team lifted the Champions League trophy and ran Manchester City to the death in a thrilling Premier League title race. As an athlete in the process of unearthing his potential to the world, losing his place in the squad was devastating, and the recovery arduous and rife with setbacks.
Not one to wallow in self-pity, the Ox used the time away from both the grind and the spotlight that comes with being a professional footballer as an opportunity for observation and introspection, including one time sneaking into a packed pub in disguise to watch England play Belgium in the World Cup.
“That was the first time I’d ever watched a match with fans of my team, if that makes sense,” Oxlade-Chamberlain admitted in an insightful profile in the Guardian. “I’m either always in the stadium or at home. I was shocked. I’ve never been to a pub where there’s a bunch of Liverpool fans or Arsenal fans and watched it with them, never been to a pub with England fans to see what it means to them and it was surreal.
“I could see my mates on the screen doing what I usually do and how everyone around them was reacting. I was almost idolizing them as well. Just seeing what they were doing and what that created around me I was like, ‘Oh my God, do I really do that?’”
It does sound surreal when put that way, watching complete strangers label your good friends as “shite” or “some player” with irrational certainty. However what struck him the most, was the seeing the impact his day job could have on an entire nation:
“It was special,” Oxlade Chamberlain continued, “To see that firsthand, in that environment, wasn’t what I expected. It was a moment where I realized – I can’t swear – I’ve missed out on something big here. Seeing what it meant to people. People rushing in from work with their shirts and ties on, it was like the whole nation was watching. I met a couple of doctors there, a couple of boys from the city, a couple of plumbers; all came into [the pub]. It was just mayhem and meant so much to everyone. I’d never seen that firsthand, so it was really special and a reminder of what it means to play for England and how special that is.”
Recalled by Gareth Southgate to the Three Lions setup after over a year away, the ex-Southampton man refused to speak negatively of the lost time, looking instead towards to opportunity to pick back up where he left off for both club and country:
“By 24 I wanted to have won the Champions League and be scoring 10-15 goals a season,” he admitted. “But sometimes things just don’t go the way you want them to.
“[But] I’ll worry about that when I’m 50 and I’ve got a big belly like my dad,” he continued, laughing. “Then I’ll think; ‘What if? I could have done that.’ It hasn’t all been roses but one thing I would say and why I remain proud of myself is that even when things haven’t gone as I wanted them to I still make sure I come back with the same optimism to improve and to do more.
“I would say I have enjoyed every minute of my career up until this point because it has shaped me to be who I am both on and off the pitch. By no means am I sat here looking back at what could have been. For now I’m just looking forward.”
If there is any narrative justice in the world, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s redemption tale will kick on this season. Give him the 15 goals and the Champions League trophy he deserves (Liverpool supporters will assume he wouldn’t mind a Premier League trophy as well) and this cold world will be better for it.