A little while after Liverpool had lifted the Premier League trophy at a near-empty but electrified Anfield in July 2020, ending that 30-year wait for the title, something caught the attention of observers inside the ground. All players and staff had departed down the tunnel before one suddenly reappeared: Divock Origi. He walked towards the centre circle and, amid the ticker tape, put his arms behind his back and fixed his gaze on the Kop. It was a curious sight but also, it felt, a telling one – this was the Belgian’s way of saying goodbye.

If it was goodbye then it was a long one because only now, close to two years later, is Origi leaving Liverpool, the club announcing on Thursday that the striker will depart when his contract expires at the end of the month. Milan, recently crowned Serie A champions, are heavily reported to be his next destination.

“A truly special journey, with iconic moments in our history delivered by @DivockOrigi time and time again … Thank you for everything,” read a tweet from Liverpool’s Twitter account. It follows the guard of honour Origi received after the victory over Wolves on the final day of the Premier League campaign, when he not only took in applause from his teammates but gifts from club executives, including the owner John W Henry, while those in the stands lustily chanted his name. All in all it is quite the fuss for anyone, let alone a team’s sixth-choice striker.

But then Liverpool has always been a place where cult heroes are treasured, from Joey Jones and David Fairclough to Djimi Traoré and Lucas Leiva, and it can be argued none have done so little yet so much quite like Origi. Nowhere near being a great goalscorer – there were only 41 in 175 appearances across his eight years on Merseyside – but undeniably a scorer of great goals, including three of the most famous in the club’s history. That goal against Everton, that goal against Barcelona, that goal against Tottenham. Little wonder Liverpool’s Twitter account went on to describe Origi as a “legend” on Thursday, something Jürgen Klopp also did on more than one occasion.

Origi pounces on a bizarre error by Jordan Pickford to give Liverpool the latest of late Merseyside derby wins at Anfield in December 2018
Origi pounces on a bizarre error by Jordan Pickford to give Liverpool the latest of late Merseyside derby wins at Anfield in December 2018. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The first time was to a room full of journalists before his team’s Champions League encounter with Genk in November 2019 and as a retort after a reporter failed to mention Origi while rattling off the names of players who have come through the Belgian club’s academy. Kevin De Bruyne is the standout and although Origi is not at his level, and never will be, the fact he represented Liverpool and contributed to the winning of six trophies, including the Premier League and Champions League, is a source of great pride there.

“I’ve known Divock since he was born,” says Michel Ribeiro, a former Genk midfielder who is assistant first-team coach at the club and worked with Origi during a spell as a technical coach at their academy. “His father, Mike, also played for Genk so I saw Divock grow up and worked with him from the age of eight or nine until he left us [in 2010].

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“He was a fantastic kid, always in a good mood, always open to learning, and we could see from a young age he had something special. He was one of the top prospects and the hope was that one day he would play for a big club. He did that with Liverpool, which is fantastic.”

It was, Ribeiro outlines, Origi’s size allied to great technique that marked him out as a player of potential. “Divock was tall in comparison to the other kids but the good thing about him was that he wasn’t just powerful – he also had good feet. So we worked on his mobility to maximise his ability to run with the ball and dribble. He picked it up amazingly.”

Those attributes were on display at the 2014 World Cup as Origi shone for Belgium, playing in all five of their games and becoming the first teenager to score at the tournament since Lionel Messi in 2006. He was 19, seemingly capable of doing it all and Liverpool’s decision to sign him for £10m later that summer appeared a shrewd one. “He has everything to be world class,” said the then manager, Brendan Rodgers. “I genuinely believe that.”

Origi leads the celebrations after scoring Liverpool’s fourth goal in their remarkable Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona in May 2019. He scored again in the final
Origi leads the celebrations after scoring Liverpool’s fourth goal in their remarkable Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona in May 2019. He scored again in the final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Origi was immediately loaned back to Lille, where he had spent the previous four seasons, before properly joining Liverpool for the 2015-16 campaign. It proved to be a tumultuous time for the club, with Rodgers sacked early on and replaced by Klopp. A change of manager could have proved disastrous for Origi but he thrived, and having scored four times in three appearances during April, including in both legs of the epic Europa League quarter-final victory over Borussia Dortmund, he appeared to be establishing himself as an important part of Klopp’s plans.

Then came the Merseyside derby later that month when having scored again, Origi suffered ankle ligament damage after an atrocious tackle by Ramiro Funes Mori. The injury sidelined him for a month, cost him a starting place in the Europa League final and checked his momentum. Come the following season Origi had largely become an alternative option – from the bench or as injury cover.

That was perhaps likely to happen anyway as Klopp went about improving his squad. Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah arrived in successive summers and alongside Roberto Firmino formed one of the most thrilling and devastating frontlines English football has seen. Origi was not at their level and that was obvious whenever he replaced any of the trio. Suddenly Liverpool’s attacking play was less fluent, fast, imaginative and potent.

Origi was again sent on loan before the 2017-18 season, this time to Wolfsburg, and when he returned he found himself not only in the shadows but also out of position. Increasingly he played wide as opposed to through the middle, so much so that in the title-winning campaign of 2019-20 he featured more as a left forward than a centre forward – 21 times compared with 18, the vast majority of those appearances as a substitute.

To some extent, Origi was a victim of the schooling he received at Genk. As Ribeiro explains: “In the academy we always put the kids in different positions to make them as complete as possible. So Divock played as a left winger, a No 9 and a No 10, and you can see with the national team and [when he was] at Liverpool he is comfortable coming inside from the wing. So that is often how he is played.”

Ribeiro goes on to describe Origi’s finishing during his time at Genk as “OK”. That was broadly the case at Liverpool, too, yet there is no denying that on three occasions across six months it was far more than that.

The 96th-minute header to win the derby, the sweeping right-foot finish to complete one of the greatest comebacks in European football history and the low left-foot drive to seal that sixth European Cup not only displayed the range and quality of Origi’s finishing but also his ability to stay cool under pressure. For supporters who were at Anfield in December 2018 and May 2019 and at the Estadio Metropolitano in June 2019 there will be no forgetting the feeling when the ball hit the net. Pure ecstasy. Pure bedlam.

“I watched all three goals and after the one in the [Champions League] final I screamed like a kid because I was so euphoric,” Ribeiro says. “I actually messaged Divock straight after the game. To be honest I always do that – even when he plays a regular game and scores I send him a text saying ‘congrats’, ‘great goal’, and he always replies to say ‘thank you’. That’s just what he’s like – a fantastic kid.”

A young Origi during his time at Genk. ‘He was a fantastic kid, always in a good mood, always open to learning’ remembers his coach from the time, Michel Ribeiro
A young Origi during his time at Genk. ‘He was a fantastic kid, always in a good mood, always open to learning’ remembers his coach from the time, Michel Ribeiro. Photograph: Courtesy of Genk

But he’s also entering his peak years and, as such, the desire to move on is understandable. It is also needed given how far Origi had slid down the pecking order at Liverpool, finding himself not only behind Mané, Salah and Firmino but also Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz. The 27-year-old also featured less than Takumi Minamino last season, albeit a muscular injury contributed to that and it was to Origi’s credit that when he did play he again made an impact.

There were six goals in 18 appearances with a few finding their way into Origi’s catalogue of memorable Liverpool strikes, among them the scorpion kick against Preston, the late winner against Wolves and the header against Everton, his sixth goal in Merseyside derbies, making him the most prolific overseas player in the fixture’s history.

Origi leaves Liverpool grateful for his time at the club, something clear from the message he posted on Twitter shortly after the disappointment and horror of Paris: “It was a special journey @LFC YNWA”. He may well have regrets over his failure to fully hit the heights at Anfield, however. A player for the big occasion but not the consistent, world-class talent Rodgers spoke of. There were reasons for that, some out of Origi’s control, and for a man who speaks four languages and has a fascination with human psychology there now comes the chance to experience something new and grow, on a personal as well as professional level.

“Divock’s too good to sit on the bench every week,” Ribeiro says. “He needs to play, to keep that hunger and show everyone what he can do. For me he is a total player.”

Does Ribeiro have any final thoughts on Origi? “Not really,” he replies. “Divock knows I love him and wish him the best.” And so, no doubt, does everyone at Liverpool.