This weekend marks the anniversary of former Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge joining Trabzonspor – Dan Kay looks back on the £12m signing who lit up the Premier League at Anfield but arguably left with a lingering sense of regret.
It has always been one of the more curious aspects of football how some players seem to be more affected by injuries than others.
Many Liverpool players of the glory years of the 1960s, 70s and 80s have revealed they would often hide knocks and play through the pain barrier due to their fear at losing their place in the team which could take months to regain, with legendary manager Bill Shankly said to take unavailability almost as a personal affront and prone to cold-shouldering them until fitness was regained.
The medical advances and sports science at the heart of the modern era, coupled with changes to the laws of the game, mean players now are generally better protected from the agricultural and sometimes brutal treatment which used to be dished out in the ‘good old days’.
Yet that does not entirely explain how some individuals are able to absorb as severe treatment from opponents as is now permitted while barely missing a game – Mohamed Salah for example or the Reds’ previous striking talisman, Luis Suarez – while others, such as the Urguayan’s main strike partner during his time at Anfield Daniel Sturridge, find their undoubted and enthralling ability compromised and let down by their own body.
The Birmingham-born forward’s time on Merseyside saw him produce moments of startling quality comparable with some of Liverpool’s greatest ever frontmen and straddled the agonising 2014 Premier League title near-miss to the start of the golden era currency being enjoyed under Jurgen Klopp but was fatally hampered with frustrating lay-offs which left all concerned ruing what might have been had he been able to get on the pitch more often.
Sturridge’s status as one of the naturally gifted strikers of his generation was evident long before he arrived in L4. Having represented both Aston Villa and Coventry City in his native midlands at youth level, he join Manchester City’s Academy at the age of 14 in 2003 and first appeared on the radar of Liverpool fans three years later when his brace in the second leg of the FA Youth Cup final almost overturned the Reds’ three-goal first-leg advantage. He made his first team breakthrough at the Etihad the following year but was hampered by a hip injury and, despite being voted City’s young player of the year in 2008/09, left to join Chelsea that summer at the end of his contract, with a tribunal deciding the Londoners’ should pay potentially up to £8.3m with add-ons.
He would spend three-and-a-half years at Stamford Bridge, interspersed with a successful six-month loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, but despite playing bit-part roles in Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League triumphs, he struggled to truly establish himself even though his potential and obvious talent won him a first senior England call-up as well as a place in the Great Britain team at the 2012 London Olympics.
Liverpool tried to bring him on loan to Anfield that summer as a replacement for Andy Carroll but negotiations stalled after Sturridge made clear his preference was a permanent move. By the following January the position had changed after a difficult first half-season in charge for new manager Brendan Rodgers and the Reds wasted no time by announcing within hours of the transfer window opening that a £12m deal had been agreed to bring the 23-year-old to Anfield.
Rodgers had known Sturridge since he was a 12-year-old at Coventry and praised his new acquisition’s quality and hunger while sounding a warning over the need to deliver on his undoubted potential, saying: “If he wants to stay at this level, this is probably his last chance. We are bringing in a player who knows he has to perform.”
The player himself was under no illusions over the opportunity being handed to him and insisted he had made no demands nor been given assurances over a central striking role, which was reportedly one of the reasons behind his desire to leave Chelsea.
“I’m humbled and happy to be here”, he said. “I’ve not signed here to play for a couple of years and then move on. I’ve signed to be here for as long as possible. It’s a humongous club – for me, one of the biggest in the world. To have the fans and world-class players we have here is amazing. I see myself as a striker. I think I perform best there because my attributes, I believe, are used best as a central striker. But I have played on the wing and have learned a lot doing so. I’d never refuse to play in that position and I’ve never demanded to play up front, either. For me, whatever the manager wants me to do I will do it and work as hard as I can for the club and the fans. I’ll try to put a smile on the fans’ faces and try to bring some success to the club – it would be amazing.”
His self-belief and confidence were very much intact despite the frustrations which had dogged his career so far as shown by his first interaction with the man with whom he would go on to form one of Liverpool’s most lethal striking partnerships, Luis Suarez.
The first time I spoke to Daniel at Melwood, he surprised me by saying, ‘Together, you and I can do something big here’”, the Uruguayan revealed. “It’s natural that players can feel that a new signing is going to compete with them for a place and I’m no different. Nor, I assumed, was Daniel. It’s not normal for a new player to be quite so bold as Daniel was that day, and I did momentarily think, ‘What’s this guy saying that to me for?’ But right from the start, he saw it as the two of us going out there together. I had watched him play and I liked him a lot. I could see that he could make a difference. When I watched him in training, my appreciation for his ability grew. I knew that he was quick, but the way that he could finish really struck me. Every shot went in. Every time. He had the talent and Liverpool offered him the opportunity and continuity that he hadn’t had at Chelsea. He had the ambition to make sure that if he was given that, he would perform.”
Sturridge wasted little time in showing how keen he was to seize his opportunity, taking just seven minutes on his debut to score in an FA Cup third round victory at Mansfield Town, and becoming the first Liverpool player since Ray Kennedy in 1974 to notch on his first three Reds appearances with further strikes against Manchester United – in front of soon-to-depart manager Alex Ferguson who had labelled his move to Anfield ‘a gamble’ – and Norwich City.
After a somewhat underwhelming summer transfer window which had only seen new manager Rodgers bring in Joe Allen from his former club Swansea City along with youngsters Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi, Samed Yesil and Nuri Sahin on loan, Sturridge was joined at the end of January by Brazilian attacking midfielder Philippe Coutihnho from Inter Milan and the pair added a new dimension as the Reds’ season – which had seen them slump to 10th in the Premier League table after a miserable Boxing Day defeat at Stoke City – gradually began to pick up.
Battling draws away to Arsenal and Manchester City – the latter of which featured a blistering Sturridge equaliser rifled home from the edge of the penalty area with minimal backlift, to highlight already the range of goals he was able to score – showed the additional attacking threat Liverpool now posed and a mid-February 5-0 home rout of Rodgers’ former club Swansea featuring strikes from both January signings sparked an impressive run of only one defeat in the final 12 games of the season which, while being unable to lift the Reds any higher than seventh or secure European qualification, raised hopes of better days ahead.
Key to that optimism was the burgeoning rapport between Sturridge and Suarez which was demonstrated to full effect in a late April home game against Chelsea, as well as the baggage that came with it. With Liverpool trailing to Oscar’s first half effort, the Reds’ strike pairing linked up to devastating effect seven minutes into the second half when Stewart Downing diverted a Glen Johnson pass into the Uruguayan’s path and his sumptuous first-time chip enabled Sturridge to guide home the equaliser without breaking stride. The England forward returned the favour deep into stoppage time by floating over a cross which Suarez headed home to grab a point for Rodgers’ men after Chelsea had re-taken the lead but that would prove to be a mere footnote in the post-match discussion due to Uruguayan’s actions a few minutes earlier.
Frustrated at having given away the penalty only five minutes after Sturridge’s equaliser which enabled Eden Hazard to put the visitors back in front and by tight Chelsea marking as Liverpool chased the game, television cameras picked up Suarez sinking his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic’s arm and biting the defender as they tussled in the box. Although missed by referee Kevin Friend at the time, the Football Association soon took retrospective action and banned the Uruguayan – who had been involved in a similar biting incident during his time in Holland with Ajax – for ten matches, casting a shadow over not only the end of that season but the start of the next one.
Sturridge stepped up in his strike partner’s absence, scoring twice the following weekend in a 6-0 win at Newcastle and bagging a hat-trick a fortnight later at Fulham to finish his first half season at Anfield with a more-than-respectable 11 goals in 16 appearances but anticipation over the resumption of his partnership with Suarez the following season once the latter’s ban (which still had six games to run) ended was thrown into jeopardy when the Uruguayan pleaded with Liverpool to fulfil a promise he claimed they’d made 12 months previously to let him leave if the club did not qualify for the Champions League. The club refused to let him go and took a firm stance, dismissing Arsenal’s £40,000,001 bid for the player and initially making him train away from the first team squad when he eventually returned to pre-season training before slowly reintegrating him.