“The manager has shown faith in me and we have a good relationship as well,” said Daniel Sturridge at the end of last season. “The fans have been different class. I don’t have any worries about next season.”
You wonder quite when Sturridge might get the hint that he is being pushed to the back of the Anfield cupboard, a faded reminder of Brendan Rodgers’ history while the future scores goals for fun. For so long the barrier to Sturridge’s participation in Liverpool’s first team was his fitness problems, but last season he was fit for 70% of Liverpool’s league matches and started just seven. He has been on the bench 13 times already this season.
The advice is obvious and prevalent. “If I was Jurgen Klopp I’d want him to stay but I understand Sturridge wanting to go,” said Phil Thompson to Sky Sports on Tuesday. “A player of his quality, you either play or you go,” said Jamie Carragher six months ago. “If I was him, I wouldn’t want to be on the bench.”
With a World Cup looming and Sturridge recently castigated by Gareth Southgate, the push factors are stacking up. There are plenty of clubs with the need for a first-class striker and the financial resources to buy one in January. Liverpool could get an offer they cannot refuse and so might Sturridge.
But there is an antidote to that majority opinion. Southgate has insisted that he will not call up those who are not being picked at club level, but the idea that a player drops down the league and is suddenly selected is hardly watertight.
Tom Cleverley was in the England squad as late as June 2015 when still a squad player at Manchester United, but his move for first-team football has not coincided with an England call-up. Kieran Gibbs was called up for England in October 2016 when not playing for Arsenal, but regular games for West Brom are unlikely to help. Fabian Delph played one match for Manchester City before being returned to the international fold. It has been consistently proven that irregular games for elite clubs can make more difference than regular minutes lower down the league. Out of sight, out of mind.
Yet the difficulty of Sturridge’s choice goes far deeper than international recognition, particularly given that he has already played and scored in a World Cup and European Championship for his country. Those advising Sturridge to leave Liverpool (and I have been guilty of that) must understand the context of his departure. For that, you must go back to 2013.
Sturridge had a 24th birthday that is the stuff of dreams, scoring the winning goal for Liverpool against reigning champions Manchester United. A month later, he became the fastest player to score 20 goals in the history of Liverpool FC. Sturridge was the top scorer in the Premier League, and had struck in eight of Liverpool’s first nine league games. He had the world at his feet.
At that time, Sturridge became widely known as a perfectionist, a striker who watched compilations of his goals as the team bus neared the stadium, employing mindfulness techniques to envisage scoring his chances in the forthcoming game.
More than anything, his is a career that has depended upon confidence, as discussed by Brendan Rodgers just a week before that birthday celebration against Manchester United.
“Firstly, it’s opportunity and confidence, because he’s a player who thrives on confidence,” Rodgers said. “He’s come into a really special football club where the supporters have made him feel really welcome and he’s thriving on that. He’s always had the ability but it’s very difficult [if you don’t have confidence].”
It’s in that quote that the doubts about Sturridge’s move surface. Until now in his career, there has been no demotion. From Coventry City to Manchester City at the age of 14. From Manchester City to Chelsea at the age of 19 for a fee that would eventually rise to £8.3m. From the fringes of Chelsea’s squad to first-team fixture at Liverpool. If Sturridge now leaves Liverpool, it will force an acceptance that his trajectory is now downward. What does that do to confidence?
It is the same reason that Theo Walcott continues to ‘fight’ for his place at Arsenal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stayed for so long. Young footballers are constantly taught that failure is an enemy that must be faced and defeated. Moving clubs may be just a transfer to us, but might be failure to them. Acceptance is not always the first step to happiness.
At the age of 28, it might also cause Sturridge to ponder whether this has been a career of just-not-quite. He has been in 47 England squads, but has started only ten competitive matches for his country. He has played for Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, but has suffered such regular injuries that Raheem Sterling has 23 more career Premier League starts at the age of 22. He has won the Premier League, two FA Cups and the Champions League, but started two games in the first and played a grand total of one minute in the finals of the other three. That’s incredibly sad.
Of course Sturridge may enjoy an Indian summer at his new club, be it West Ham, Newcastle or anywhere in between, even forcing his way back into Southgate’s World Cup squad. We may see that dance many more times, misinterpreted as a show of arrogance rather than a grounded footballer delighting in the joy of scoring goals. Yet it is still impossible to escape the notion that something is ebbing away.
When Sturridge arrived at Anfield, it was after a spell at Chelsea when he admitted reaching a nadir, out of the team or at least shunted out onto the wing. “At the time I thought, ‘I need a bit of that in my life because I am so low right now, I need to feel good about myself’,” he told the Guardian. Anfield was his sanctuary.
For so long Sturridge was the Bright Young Thing, a boy who just wanted to play football. “When you are a kid you dream of playing as much as you can until your mum calls you in and you can’t play any longer,” he said.
Liverpool were once the perfect escape, but Anfield may now be his prison. That won’t make the goodbyes any easier.