Connor Randall does not mind admitting he was emotional on his last day at his beloved Liverpool.
The defender, who had been with the club since he was six, left Anfield at the end of last season, having made three starts for his childhood club, all under Jurgen Klopp.
He was without a team until September, when he joined Bulgarian top-flight side FC Arda Kardzhali.
The move to unfashionable Kardzhali, three hours south of the capital, Sofia, materialised after potential transfers to a number of Championship clubs fell through in the summer.
“I’d been at Liverpool for nearly 20 years,” Randall says. “There were tears when I said goodbye to everybody at the training ground who I had known for years, including all the chefs and security guys.
“I was in the last year of my contract and I knew I wasn’t going to be offered another one, so it didn’t come as a shock.”
Raised a Red, Randall joined Liverpool in 2001 after being spotted playing for his dad’s junior team.
Coached by such names as Liverpool legend Steve Heighway, Randall worked his way through the ranks at a club he believes was perfect for nurturing his talents.
A regular for the under-18s and under-21s, his contemporaries included Cameron Brannagan, who also made his debut under Klopp.
“It is every kid’s dream to play for their home town team, so I always felt lucky to be at Liverpool,” Randall says. “If the first team were a man short in training, I would be one of those called in.
“I was learning and training alongside some of the best players in the world, so it was the perfect environment for me. Every time I was with them, I could see how hard they worked and how they dedicated themselves to the game.
“To see it first hand was invaluable, especially when guys like Kolo Toure and Adam Lallana spoke to me after training sessions and told me what I had done well and what I could improve on.”
Following a loan spell at Shrewsbury Town, Randall was included in a match-day squad for the first time against Bordeaux in a Europa League group game, just weeks before then-manager Brendan Rodgers was sacked.
Klopp replaced Rodgers in October 2015 and named Randall as a substitute for his first match in charge, a 0-0 draw at Tottenham, before handing him his debut against Bournemouth at Anfield later in the month.
“It was a League Cup game. I was told I’d be playing against Bournemouth the night before and was just full of excitement,” Randall says.
“It was all about knowing that my dream was going to come true the next day. I remember scrambling around, trying to get as many tickets as I could for my family and friends.
“Standing in the tunnel, it felt surreal, especially when You’ll Never Walk Alone started playing. It’s a moment I will always remember.”
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) October 28, 2015
Liverpool won 1-0, and Randall started in the next round of the competition too in a thumping 6-1 victory at Southampton.
He was given his Premier League debut – his only league appearance for Liverpool – in a 2-1 win at Bournemouth in April 2016 and impressed enough to be offered a new contract.
Randall has nothing but praise for Klopp, despite the German deciding to release him.
“Everyone can see what a great manager Klopp is,” he says. “He is the same as you see him on TV – he will put your arm around you and tell you what you need to do.
“His man-management is perfect and every player wants to work hard for him – you can see that now with the success the club is having.
“It was a privilege to work under him.”
Sadly for Randall, the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back put paid to his hopes of establishing himself the following season, so he moved on loan to Scottish side Hearts.
“I had great time up there,” he says. “Playing at Celtic Park and Ibrox were great experiences.
“We beat Celtic at home and ended their unbeaten run – that was the best moment I had at Hearts and the atmosphere was superb.”
— Liam Highton (@LiamHighton) August 12, 2017
The Edinburgh side decided not to sign Randall permanently, however, and he started the 2018-2019 season on loan at Rochdale.
Just 10 minutes into his debut, he fractured his cheekbone and eye socket and did not appear for the club again.
“I had an operation, and it was a psychological blow as well as a physical one,” he says. “I did my rehab and needed a run of games, but it was coming towards the end of the season, so it wasn’t ideal.”
Given a free transfer by Liverpool, a number of clubs showed interest in Randall before he ventured to the Balkans four months ago.
“It was a fresh start and a move that excited me,” he says. I had been in Liverpool my whole life and thought I should give it a go.
“It is not just the food and weather which are completely different, the language is not the easiest to learn either, but it is all part of the challenge.”
Arda currently sit in seventh in the Bulgarian Premier League, just outside the play-off places.
“It is a good standard and you have teams like Ludogorets, who regularly play in the Champions League.
“It can be difficult communicating on the pitch, but we have a few Dutch and French lads who speak English.”
Randall signed a one-year contact with Arda with the option of another 12 months but is not looking too far ahead when it comes to his career.
“I am concentrating on playing well and seeing where that takes me,” he says. “I do think more young British players should go and play abroad and expand their horizons, rather than play under-23s’ football.
“Some don’t want to do it and come out of their comfort zone, which is understandable, but I am glad I’ve done it.”
Having won the Champions League in May, it looks like Liverpool will soon end their 30-year wait for a top-flight title. And, far from casting an envious eye on his former club, Randall could not be more delighted.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, but they are doing well and it will be unbelievable if they win the league,” he says.
“There are no regrets because I look back on my time at Liverpool with fond memories. I am proud to say I played for Liverpool and nobody can take that away from me. I sit back and think of myself as lucky.
“In a perfect world, I would have played a part in winning the Champions League and helping them challenge for the Premier League, but you can’t look at it in that way.
“I am still in touch with a few of the Liverpool squad, including Trent, and, like with any of your friends, you want to see them do well.”
By Simon Yaffe