AS the final whistle sounded in May to confirm Liverpool’s first top-four finish under Jürgen Klopp at a relieved Anfield, there was a brief moment of realisation that, as the players were joined by their families for the traditional lap of honour, this would probably be the last sighting of Daniel Sturridge in a Liverpool shirt.
One of the problems with Sturridge, or rather the perception of him, is that moments are often either overlooked or misjudged, and not just because of his well-documented struggles with injury.
- 2013-14: A season in which 24 goals in 33 games sees him finish as the highest-scoring English forward in the Premier League, a total only bettered by one person, his strike partner Luis Suarez.
- 2014-15: Having lost Suarez to Barcelona and failing to sign a replacement, Sturridge is encouraged to play through a series of minor injuries (something which he’s often criticised for not doing) only to break down, ultimately resulting in major surgery the following close season in Boston.
- 2016: The Europa League final, scores a goal worthy of winning any tournament only for it never to be talked about because of a Liverpool collapse in the second half.
- 2016: Injury time, Goodison Park, 0-0, Everton with everything behind the ball. Sturridge picks up the ball on the right, the rest…
- 2017: With Champions League Qualification on a knife edge, Liverpool travel to West Ham. Results and circumstances are conspiring against them, but it is Sturridge’s goal on 30 minutes that calms the nerves and opens the floodgates. Liverpool leave the capital with a 4-0 win, three points and only a victory against an already relegated Middlesbrough at Anfield away from a top-four finish.
But despite underscoring his undeniable quality at the business end of last season, playing a pivotal role in ensuring Liverpool achieved their objective of a top-four finish, the 27-year-old finished the campaign with only seven league starts to his name and the feeling that his time at Anfield was up.
It’s a misconceived notion that Klopp does not rate or has never rated Sturridge’s ability, quite the opposite, the question has always been can he risk allowing Sturridge minutes to reach peak condition on the pitch at the expense of others with so much at stake?
At the age where a player needs to think about his career, there was a palpable sense that an ideal bookend had presented itself for both the club and the England’s most talented striker to part on good, if not bittersweet, terms, bringing to a close a Liverpool career punctuated by moments of brilliance but littered with a litany of missed opportunities and rotten luck that could have amounted to so much more.
In the shifting sands of the summer, having voluntarily committed himself to a gruelling fitness and conditioning programme in Los Angeles and subsequently presenting himself for a full pre season in the best condition in years, the Liverpool striker, instead of being linked to a route out of Anfield, is once again at the forefront of people’s minds.
His teammate Adam Lallana, who said: “Listen, Studge has been absolutely brilliant in pre season so far. You couldn’t put a price on him.
“He is a world-class player. He has come back from the summer looking absolutely brilliant, so fit. He is going to be a massive player for us this season. I can feel it.”
And his manager, who said: “He is an outstanding and important player for us. It’s very good for him that we have another two or three weeks before we really get going.
“We’ll give him as many minutes as possible and as many minutes that makes sense for him so we don’t overload him.
“What I can say is that he’s here, he’s training and this is 100 per cent the best face since we got together.
“Did you see him train? He is really digging in and giving everything.
“He’s reaching for the next level, a new physical level and that’s really good news.
“We don’t have to talk about what a difference he could make, everybody knows about it. We just need to have it. We need him fit.”
If ever there was a perfect metaphor for Sturridge’s time at Liverpool and over the last few seasons and the reportage around it, it was his performance against Bayern Munich.
That he, for the first time in years, felt comfortable enough to put the hammer down without looking as if he was carrying a ton of doubt on his shoulders, once narrowly missing the target, only to repeat the trick minutes later to score a goal no-one else in the Liverpool squad is capable of.
The sharp intake of breath could be heard from Munich to Merseyside as Sturridge, having scored Liverpool’s third goal with a ridiculously exquisite lob, grimaced in pain, seemingly aggravating a problem with his right thigh.
The ball hadn’t even crossed the line before the noise and the tutting around him reverted to type.
That is was a minor niggle was neither here nor there and was largely ignored in the post-match chatter. “This is it”, “same old, same old”, “here we go again”, “him and his bloody injuries”, “if only he could get better at not being injured,” as if the player himself goes out of his way to pick up knocks.
No one, not the manager, the fans or anyone associated with Liverpool Football Club is more frustrated by Sturridge’s injuries than Sturridge himself.
What’s also ignored is that the player was largely available for the majority of games last season but not selected for one reason or another, only starting the odd game, never really having the opportunity to establish the rhythm that his manager is obsessive over.
So what’s new, what has changed, why might it be different this season?
Maybe the manager has seen something in the player he hadn’t noticed before, or maybe he’s figured out a way to make the most of it?
Maybe, the hard work behind the scenes and months and months of frustration have finally paid off and Sturridge finally feels liberated enough to push himself to his absolutes without fear of injury?
Maybe with Lucas Leiva leaving there is even more need for another senior player at the club to lead a young squad alongside Jordan Henderson, because, despite what you might read, Sturridge is very well thought of within the squad and is seen as a father figure to some of the younger lads.
Maybe it’s a case of Klopp seeing a unique opportunity with the potential advent of Champions League football at Anfield next season to find that rhythm will be in abundance.
Maybe, it’s as simple as the club and player reaching a convenient settlement where the neither the club nor the player have received a suitable offer and are happy to work with each other and see where it leads?
Maybe it’s a combination of all the above.
What is indisputable is Sturridge’s quality and ability in decisive moments. The sort of quality and ability that deserves to be nurtured. The sort of quality and ability that might just be worth the risk.
The quality and ability of a striker showing his best face leading the line at Liverpool and writing his own ending.