Jon Flanagan is a fan favourite. This is not a controversial statement. His role as such relies on a couple of things. In a world where all new signings give lip service to the idea that their new club was their childhood favourite, Jon Flanagan literally grew up in the shadow of Anfield. Where other players might claim to have played as Liverpool on FIFA as kids, Jon Flanagan's father was on the club's books as a youth player and used to clean King Kenny's boots.
There are other factors. Flanagan's a relatable bloke; the kind of guy who will kick back with bare feet and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy on the telly rather than embracing the jet-set party life of many young millionaire athletes. He was never tipped to be the next big thing as a youth player. Not a particularly gifted athlete nor technically brilliant, his footballing ability is quite limited and based around sustained effort and tenacity rather than superior skill. Yet he is playing in the biggest of leagues for the club we all love, living out our collective dream.
In short, he is a natural underdog, one we love cheering for. So for the past 20 months, as he has struggled to recover from two separate knee surgeries, the club and fans have stuck by him, anxiously awaiting his return. For Jürgen Klopp, it was a highlight:
"When Flanno came in it was a great moment, after this long time.
"I haven’t had him too often in training until now because we need to really be careful with him. Too high intensity is not allowed, so it’s always training, break, training, break, recovery. He had a few minutes in the U21s. (...)
"The whole stadium stood up and clapped their hands. It was really good and nobody deserved it more than him. It’s such a long time, an unbelievably long time.
"Since I’ve been here he was always injured – but never in a bad mood! That’s unbelievable. He is a really strong lad.
"Hopefully, now it goes on. We have to see how he feels tomorrow and take it day by day. But it is one of the best [pieces of] news we could get that he’s back."
For those who have followed the player since he first broke through the ranks back in 2011, none of this is surprising. The never-say-die attitude to has let him go toe to toe with some of the best strikers and wingers in the world, that has made him a fan favourite, and even lead to an endorsement from Brazil legend Cafu, has now helped pull him through the kind of injury troubles that can end careers.
There is still a ways to go, of course. His 40 minutes against Exeter showed the expected amount of rust and his contract runs out this summer, giving him limited time to prove to his new manager that he can stay healthy and that his injuries haven't derailed his development too much. Hopefully, though, the club will continue to support its most beloved underdog as he looks to defy the odds once more.