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'Klopp really cares about his players' - Solanke on leaving Liverpool, idolising Drogba and kickstarting his career at Bournemouth

5:34 PM MYT 18/11/2021
Dominic Solanke Bournemouth Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX
In an exclusive interview with Goal, the once-capped England striker discusses his journey from Stamford Bridge to Dean Court via Anfield

Dominic Solanke can’t stop scoring.

He’s been stepping onto the pitch with renewed belief, notching 14 goals in 18 appearances for Bournemouth so far this season. Only Aleksandar Mitrovic’s freakish record stands above his in the Championship.

“It’s what you want, being a striker, to score as many goals as you can. At the moment, I’m in a good place and I feel confident,” Solanke tells GOAL

“Last season was decent for me, and I just wanted to build on that. The style of play, the new manager and his staff coming in has definitely helped me. It’s all just clicked, and I think you can see that with the goals I’m getting.”

This wasn’t always the case, though, far from it. When he first arrived from Liverpool for £19 million ($25.5m) in January 2019, Solanke struggled. He was full of effort and endeavour but lacked that all-important cutting edge. It took him 39 games to finally break his Premier League duck for Bournemouth.

“It was quite difficult. There were quite high expectations, which probably made it a bit harder. It was obviously such a tough time, but I look back now and I can use that to make sure I carry on how I’m going,” he says.

“I wouldn’t say there were any doubts about being good enough, because I think I am. I think I’ve got the talent and the work-rate to play in the Premier League, but I didn’t quite get that bit of confidence and rhythm. That’s probably what caused me to have that moment in my career.”

His lack of goals attracted a lot of scrutiny. Solanke could have crumbled under the pressure, but he used the club’s relegation to his advantage instead. He’s rediscovered his best form since dropping down to the second tier with a point to prove.

“The fans are a big part of football, but it’s for yourself and your family as well," he explains. "They were with me throughout it. It was a tough time for me and a tough time for them. That was the main thing that kept me going.

“When we got relegated, I saw this as an opportunity to get my confidence back, play week in, week out, and get that flow back. I think that’s what I’m doing now and I’m looking to keep progressing.”

The signs are certainly promising. After losing out to Brentford in the play-off semi-finals last season, the Cherries are top of the table and have automatic promotion in their sights. Under Scott Parker, they seem more ruthless.

“We had quite a good team, but we just didn’t quite have the winning mentality that we do this year. We go into games expecting to win and everyone’s fighting for each other, which we lacked a bit last year. We’re definitely going in the right direction,” Solanke says.

“We’re in a good place. We went unbeaten for 15 games, which was really good. The game we lost was a bit annoying because we always back ourselves at home, but the most important thing was getting back on track straightaway and that’s what we did.”

Although Solanke is happy to be silencing the doubters with some clinical performances, he knows that he still needs to deliver at the top level. That’s what he hoped to do at Bournemouth after feeling trapped on the fringes at Chelsea and Liverpool.

A star graduate of the Blues academy, he helped the Londoners win the FA Youth Cup in consecutive years, playing alongside the likes of Andreas Christensen, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham. They were a formidable outfit.

“I loved it. There was so much talent in all of the age groups. That period was when we first got to compete for something valuable. With the squad we had, it would have been a disaster if we didn’t win. They were enjoyable moments. There really wasn’t a weakness in the side,” reflects the 24-year-old.

Even amongst such talented company, he stood out. In the summer of 2014, Jose Mourinho said that he would blame himself if Solanke, Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker didn’t become England internationals. The Bournemouth striker is the only one who's done it, back in 2017.

“I can remember it," Solanke says. "Something like that being said by a top manager like Mourinho was a nice thing to hear. I’d had a couple of really good seasons in the youth team, and I wanted to test myself in the men’s game, but it was so difficult to make that transition, especially back then.”

Solanke was restricted to just one appearance for Chelsea, as a late substitute in a 6-0 thrashing of Maribor. Still, it was a dream come true and an unforgettable experience to partner childhood hero Didier Drogba up front.

“He was my idol from a young age," he enthuses. "Just everything about him – his hold-up play, his goals and assists, his whole aura, really. He’s a winner and he had a lot of personality about him. I’d shout his name in the playground and I ended up being able to train and play with him.”

A loan spell at Vitesse followed, which saw Solanke mature on and off the pitch, but he was stuck behind Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi in the pecking order on his return to Stamford Bridge. In 2017, he left for Liverpool.

“My contract at Chelsea finished and I was just looking at my options. Liverpool came in. They’re such a big club and I knew they wanted to give young players opportunities. I think that’s what drove me to go there.”

Working with Jurgen Klopp was special.

“It was really good. What he’s done is phenomenal. I was there to witness the transition that he made in the squad. He really cares about his players and he’s moulded them into winners.”

Solanke benefited from mixing with some of the world’s best, including Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. They complemented each other so well that he often had to take a backseat, but they were a pleasure to watch.

“They’ve been doing it for a long time at the top level. To see what needs to be done, the effort that needs to be put in, you can only learn from them,” he says.

“Nothing’s a given in football and the front three when I was there were just phenomenal. I don’t think anyone would have got in ahead of them. I wasn’t as prolific as I am now, so that played a part as well, but it was always going to be difficult to break into a top team with quality players like that.”

One memorable occasion when Solanke had to settle for a place on the bench was the Champions League final. He’d made a few cameos in the competition, including against Manchester City and Roma in the knockout stages, and it was a thrill to be part of, even in defeat.

“That was crazy. The build-up to the final was great and the journey to get there was amazing. The final was a couple of weeks after the season was done, so we were just looking forward to it. It was a shame that we didn’t end up winning but they won it the next year,” he points out.

Opportunities were harder to come by in Solanke’s second season at Liverpool, so he joined Bournemouth in the January transfer window. Ideally, he would have played more at Anfield but he still remembers that spell fondly.

“I enjoyed my time there and I learned a lot," he insists. "I was around some really nice people and top players. I wouldn’t say I’ve got any regrets. I just wanted to go out and play. Bournemouth attracted me with their style of play and the manager at the time. I just felt it was the right step for me.”

With some exciting young prospects and Eddie Howe’s emphasis on attacking football, Bournemouth seemed like the perfect stage for Solanke to shine but he toiled in front of goal as the club’s top flight adventure came to an end. The criticism stung, fuelling his determination to spearhead their return and show everyone what he can really do.

“I want to get back to the Premier League and prove that I can be a regular goalscorer there," he declares. "That’s the main thing I want to achieve right now. My confidence is a lot different to how it was back then. I’m a lot older and stronger now, so that will definitely help me. I feel a lot more complete.”