Jürgen Klopp has never been opposed to giving young players first-team opportunities at Liverpool.
With Trent Alexander-Arnold, Curtis Jones, Caoimhin Kellher and Harvey Elliott all established first-team stars, Stefan Bajcetic was set to join the quartet in the senior ranks of the Reds last season before injury prematurely ended an impressive breakthrough .
Ben Doak and Bobby Clark would both catch the eye if they turned, while Calvin Ramsay, Layton Stewart and Melkamu Frauendorf all had first-team chances too. At least there will be opportunities for the former pair again in the pre-season, with the likes of Conor Bradley, Tyler Morton and Kaide Gordon also looking to catch the eye after moves and injuries respectively.
But senior opportunities used to not be so obvious to young players at Anfield. For example, Liverpool would sign a highly rated youngster from Real Madrid in the summer of 2007, but he would leave four years later without ever making a senior appearance for the club.
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Hailed as the ‘next Messi’ after coming to Merseyside, former Reds reserve star Gerardo Bruna has been said to attribute his lack of opportunities to managerial changes, after he was on the verge of making his debut under the manager who signed him – Rafa Benitez.
“In Spain you have so many teams – under-18s, under-19s, the third team, the second team and then Real Madrid. I was only in the under-16s at the time, it’s a very big step,” he told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph as he reflected on his Reds career in 2015.
“So when Liverpool called me and offered me the chance to train with the reserves and sometimes the first team, I felt it was a lot closer. I thought it was a good move for a 16-year-old boy. Benitez was also one of the main reasons…
“After I played for Argentina [Under-20s in the Toulon tournament in 2009] I came back to Liverpool and did pre-season, then Benitez gave me a chance in the first team. But I had a knee injury, I had surgery in Barcelona and when I came back I had some injuries and I wasn’t thinking about it that much.
“Benitez left and everything changed. Roy Hodgson came, I trained a few more times with the first team, but then Kenny Dalglish came and told me I wouldn’t be in his first team, so obviously I had to do something.
Bruna has led a varied career in the lower echelons of the football ladder since leaving Liverpool in 2011. He initially joined Championship side Blackpool after their Premier League relegation, but made just four appearances before returning to Spain for a season with Segunda Division B side. Huesca. From there he returned to England on short-term contracts with Tranmere Rovers and Whitehawk, before signing for Accrington Stanley in January 2015.
He was released a year later and signed for Ottawa Fury, before joining League of Ireland side Derry City in February 2019. A move to Shelbourne followed two years later, although an ACL injury prevented him from ever playing for the club, before signing for NIFL. Premiership side Dungannon Swifts last September.
That’s where our story continues. While Bruna understandably never lived up to that ‘next Messi’ tag, he will never be forgotten at Stangmore Park after a memorable lonely season with the Swifts.
Bruna would go viral in November when the former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder scored a spectacular goal against Glentoran from his own half. It would prove to be his only goal of the season as he made 25 appearances for the club.
Still, his finest hour came earlier this month when he helped Dungannon Swifts avoid relegation after flying in at the last minute to answer an SOS call from the club.
The 32-year-old had returned to Spain, as he believed his time at the club was over after netting the winner in a 2-1 win over Newry City in the last game of the regular season on April 29.
With a two-legged relegation play-off against Annargh United still to come, the two games were delayed by four weeks due to a licensing issue, leaving both sides severely weakened by injuries, absences and player departures.
After Dungannon lost the first leg 2–1 on 30 May, manager Dean Shiels phoned Bruna hoping he could help salvage their season and extend their 20-year stay in the Premiership ahead of the second leg on 1 June.
The former youth international of Spain and Argentina, who didn’t even have his boots with him as he flew away from a scheduled week in France for the Monaco GP, was set to star in the Swifts’ 2-0 victory to secure safety before flying to Monte Carlo, after spending less than 48 hours back in Northern Ireland.
“The manager [Dean Shiels] called me Wednesday morning and asked if I could come over for the game the following evening,” Bruna explained. “It just so happened that I was in England – I should have been in France – so I said ‘yes, okay’. Then I flew back to France immediately after the game this morning.
“I was in Monaco to watch the Grand Prix and would be in France all week. But I flew back to the UK on Tuesday evening because my wife, who was still in Liverpool, said we should come back and we would fly back to France together.
“I went straight to sleep and then I woke up the next morning and Dean had texted, so I said to my wife, ‘I think I should go again’. It was just a coincidence that I was in the UK as I would be in France. It wasn’t until Monday evening that I decided to go back.
“I don’t think Dean knew I was back in the UK as my plan was to stay in France. But we talked on the phone and I said ‘yeah, no problem’. The only thing was that I had to fly straight back after the game. My flight back to France was at 7am this morning.
‘I didn’t even have my boots – they were in my old house in Derry. Dean said, ‘Okay, fly to Belfast,’ and arranged a car for me to drive to Derry to collect my boots. I ate and went to sleep. Then I woke up the next day and got ready for the game.”
While at Liverpool or Real Madrid they would have been numerous staff members responsible for organizing Bruna’s travel plans, things are clearly a bit different in the NIFL Irish Premiership.
As a result, the semi-professional club’s manager, Shiels, had to become a travel co-ordinator, arranging flights, hotels and airport pick-ups to get his star player back to Stangmore Park in time for the game, while also fitting in. a detour to pick up his boots on the way.
Delighted to see such hard work pay off, Shiels paid tribute to Bruna as he laid out how far the pair went to get the 32-year-old onto the pitch.
“Bruna flew back especially for tonight,” said Shiels after the game. “He only came in this morning. I booked the flights, booked the hotel and picked him up myself because I knew how important it was to have him on the team.
“He has shown so much desire and has dealt with personal issues off the pitch that people are not aware of. It has been a pleasure working with him and his desire to come and help this club stay in the league , was so refreshing.”
“His quality was really needed tonight. He has been in France and Spain in recent weeks. His quality is beyond dispute, given his condition it was of course tough for him.”
“I called him after the game on Tuesday, I didn’t think he would be available, but we had a great desire to take him because we knew how much he would help us.”
Shiels continued: “Mentally it was tough… just the whole play-off situation, waiting for the games and not knowing who we were playing against and it seems like it has been a season without end.
“Mentally it was tough for the staff and the players, both teams. The league came to a decision and we got two games in two days, which was crazy, but both teams really had to give it their all.
“From our own point of view it was just crazy to have 12 players out tonight and to get a team that could turn a deficit.”
Bruna is now a free agent after officially leaving the Swifts. But the former Liverpool was delighted to help keep them safe, having seen them hand him a game return following his lengthy layoff with an ACL injury.
‘I’m so happy for Dungannon’ he said. “It’s been a really tough time for me. I had left Derry City and went to Shelbourne and tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) so I was out for ages.
“It’s taken me a while to come back and I’m so grateful to Dungannon for giving me the chance to play football again.”
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