Only once Angel Gomes had driven out of Manchester United’s training ground for the final time, the memories of his childhood strewn in bags across the backseat of his car, did the emotions become impossible to contain. For a player who grew up in catching distance of Old Trafford, from where the roars used to rattle the windows on his Salford estate, nothing felt stranger than saying goodbye and, as Carrington disappeared in his mirrors, it was useless biting back the tears any longer.
“I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t quite understand how emotional it would be,” Gomes says, reliving each fond farewell. “Saying goodbye to the friends I’ve known since the very start; all the staff; the security at the gate. I love everyone there and it was all I’d ever known. I don’t think it had quite sunk in, leaving everything behind.”
Sentimental but smiling, Gomes admits that bond helped sustain him during a “very difficult past year”, when a burning desire to play went unfulfilled and became “mentally and physically” wearing. His entire world had existed comfortably on his doorstep in Manchester, but without the promise of regular appearances, he slowly realised that he would only find peace by uprooting it; a decision that brought heartbreak and grief but ultimately acceptance.
“It’s such a special club but I just wanted to be able to play and express myself,” he tells The Independent. “I was offered a great contract, I had all my family and friends around me, but I decided that I was willing to sacrifice that to pursue a different path. It’s hard to understand how difficult a decision that was. I’m still a United fan. I still watch every game now, whether it’s the first team or the U18s. I could have stayed and gone out on loan but it just felt like I needed a fresh start.
“Football is like a rollercoaster and I went through a lot of highs,” he says, reminiscing about his debut when he was just 16 years old and how those same cheers he’d heard as a child seemed to lift him off his feet. “I had the right people around me and I stayed grounded, but when you hit a few lows it starts to build up on you. It can be hard to show your emotions and you’ve got to just keep giving your all in training [even though you’re not playing]. But when you go home, deep down you know you’re not quite the same as normal. I’m usually very bubbly and your family notice those little changes in you. I wanted to get back to where I was and find happiness in my football.”
Breaking through at such a young age had always left a spotlight on Gomes, a slight and skilful playmaker bursting with creativity, and with his contract expiring he was approached by numerous clubs across Europe. Ultimately, though, it was Lille’s director, Luis Campos, whose blueprint instantly felt right. “We spoke for a couple of hours, he knew me inside-out as a player, and he showed me his plan. It was exactly what I needed to hear,” Gomes says. “In the first year, he wanted me to go to Boavista, it’d be a clean slate and I spoke to the manager there and loved his ideas. I didn’t see it as a step back, I saw it as my chance to kick on. I didn’t want to go somewhere and have that label of being a youngster. I wanted to play 90 minutes, have an important role, and show what I can do.”
Gomes has done that immediately and in abundance. Helped to settle in off the pitch by Bruno Fernandes, who arranged everything from “apartments to visit, getting a car, and where to go for food”, he has been electric since his very first game for Boavista, when he finished with a hat-trick of assists. Since then, there’s been a halfway line lob and a stunning solo goal, wriggling free of five opposition players and curling a shot into the bottom corner. One of Portugal’s oldest and most prestigious clubs, Gomes hopes to restore them to old heights and, more than any highlight, it’s the sense of freedom, the thrill of risk and having to prove himself again that he is relishing most.
“It’s actually quite refreshing,” he says. “A year ago, I would never have thought I’d be in this position, but I’m really enjoying it. The manager just wants me to always be on the ball and involved in the game and that’s perfect for me. I’m ambitious and I’m excited about what’s ahead, to carry on like how I’ve started, and go back to Lille full of confidence.”
Time has slowly eased the pain of separation from home and Gomes hopes it will soon have the power to take him back there, with his position in the England set-up - with whom he won the England U17 World Cup - another key point in his departure. “The level of players now is incredible, every position is strong, but as long as you’re playing week-in week-out then you’re giving yourself the best chance to get picked and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he says.
With the spring back in his step, Gomes’s easy-going sense of humour has returned and he breaks into laughter when addressing the assumptions that his height, standing at 5’6”, caused him to be held back. “Sometimes I wonder if people think I’m looking at other players like they’re giants,” he grins. “There were times when, because of my height, it felt like people would expect me to do twice as much in a game to justify it, but that’s just part and parcel of football. I’ve always been small but it never gave me an issue when I was younger, it was just something that seemed to get mentioned a lot. It didn’t affect me because you play football with your feet and your brain, that’s what I love to do. There are dozens of players my height who’ve done incredible things so it’s not something I think about, I just play.”
And in the sheer joy of playing, Gomes has rediscovered the “almost childlike sense of fun” that always defined his football. It had been that way for as long as he can remember; born in the parks and estates in Salford playing with his brother long into the night; rising through the academy with Mason Greenwood, a close friend who he urges people to support during what seems like relentless trials in the media; the years he spent living with Marcus Rashford, someone “we should all be eternally grateful for,” and whose efforts to tackle food poverty Gomes holds close to his heart.
“There were a lot of difficult times growing up. My mum was working two or three jobs just to try and make ends meet. My brother was playing for United while helping my mum and taking me to training. There’d be times when we had to go to my auntie or her friends’ houses just to eat,” he says. “It was difficult, but it was always enjoyable, we had so much fun just playing football every day. That’s always been the reason why I’ve played; to be able to do it with a smile on my face.” Briefly, Gomes felt what it was like to lose that. “But I’ve got it back now. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”