A couple of weeks after he had hoped to book himself a seat on a Merseyside-bound plane, Mohammed Kudus touched down at the Liverpool John Lennon Airport, in the company of his Ajax Amsterdam teammates, coaches and officials.
The agenda was a second UEFA Champions League group game of the season, a week after winning the first convincingly at home to Scotland’s Rangers. Ajax’s next opponent was also British, albeit one with a more pronounced presence on the continent, Liverpool.
But it was Everton, the other top-flight club to which half of Merseyside swears allegiance, that Kudus had in mind when he’d earlier fancied anticipated a trip to the vibrant, north-eastern English city. His mission there, unlike this one, wasn’t going to be over in a matter of days: Everton was the club he had been on the brink of joining permanently, not quite a month ago.
His heart was, in fact, so set on sealing that exit that he supposedly missed training to drive home that point to his employers. Apparently, though, he didn’t drive it far enough, as the deal fell through and went uncompleted by the end of the transfer window.
That development left Kudus in a rather precarious position, having seemingly fallen out of favour with freshly appointed boss Alfred Schreuder even before the Dutchman’s tenure had properly started.
Kudus hadn’t played too much football prior to the departure of previous head coach Erik ten Hag to Manchester United, and he could only look forward to more of the same – worse, perhaps – under the new guy at the helm, despite giving a good account of himself in pre-season.
The 22-year-old was stuck, it appeared, on the periphery.
That situation couldn’t have been more different from what Kudus’ fortunes were in the immediate weeks after his arrival at the Johan Cruyff Arena two years ago. His start was explosive, and Kudus was doing just fine until damage to his knee, nine minutes into his UEFA Champions League debut, at home to Liverpool, set him back.
Recovery, a tough process that later became the subject of a documentary by Ajax, was eventually completed, but working his way back to becoming a fixture in the starting XI proved much more challenging for the young man.
That was going to take a while, yes, but that while soon threatened to stretch into forever.
Forever finally seems to have ended for Kudus in the last couple of weeks, however, following a remarkable run of form. He has found himself in Schreuder’s good graces, and rightly so; which coach wouldn’t be pleased with a player who returns four goals and an assist in just three starts?
The Ghanaian looks revived, thriving in a rather unusual ‘false nine’ role that Schreuder had now handed him. A goal against Rangers – in his very first start of the season – and two when Heerenveen also visited in the Eredivisie days later certainly justified Schreuder’s confidence in Kudus.
Yet all of that was amplified by Kudus’ strike in Ajax’s next game, the aforementioned European trip to six-time winners Liverpool.
The Reds – against whom he had suffered his career’s first major injury, the one that knocked him off his upward trajectory – took an early through Mohamed Salah, a crucial first step to getting their own Champions League campaign off the ground.
Ten minutes later, their guests hit back. Kudus, picking the ball in the Liverpool box, touched it once to shape up a shot, before firing it off the underside of the crossbar and over the line for the leveller. If a goal ever felt – or looked – like an exclamation mark, this was it.
“I’m back!” he seemed to say, celebrating with a corresponding measure of emotion.
On his team’s way back from Anfield – Ajax lost 2-1, their resistance undone by a late Joel Matip header – Kudus might have caught a glimpse of the stadium on the other side of Stanley Park, Everton’s Goodison Park. But even if he did, that sight likely wouldn’t have had him wondering what might have been, given how good a time he’s having after staying put.
That notwithstanding, he may occasionally wonder what living and playing in England is like. Kudus might, even, aspire to experiencing all that someday – and, really, which footballer wouldn’t? – and that dream may eventually see him join a club with loftier ambitions.
And it’s anyone guess, really, what the identity of that potential destination could be.
Everton’s neighbours, perhaps?
“It was an incredible strike from Kudus,” Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, told BT Sport after the game.
It would. of course, mean getting one over sworn rivals Everton, who are reportedly still interested in getting their man – all the better, any Liverpool fan would argue – and if Kudus’ form holds up, along with a sustained appetite for Champions League football, the Toffees won’t remain as appealing an option.
Kudus only considered them an escape route from bench-warming misery, remember?
At this rate, he’d soon be desirous — and, indeed, worthy — of so much more.