There’s been a recurring theme when assessing the redemptive form of Liverpool’s most prolific striker.
Criticised for disconnecting his brain from his feet, regularly accused of seeking self-serving transfers and finding himself prematurely summoned to the VIP lounge of the last chance saloon, there was a time when his championing by Brendan Rodgers was likened to a drunken wager.
A year on from his move to Merseyside, Daniel Sturridge is not only competing with strike partner Luis Suárez for this year’s golden boot, but for the role of English football’s prodigal son.
The difference between Sturridge and Suárez is it not altogether clear why the English striker had any reputation to rebuild.
Grievances against him – emanating from unfulfilling spells at his previous clubs Chelsea and Manchester City – were based on whispers rather than public moans.
“A nightmare behind the scenes,” was one accusation from Stamford Bridge.
“Too interested in fame and money,” another from Manchester City, still sore after losing him to Chelsea for a fee set by tribunal.
Among the highest profile cynics was Sir Alex Ferguson, somewhat of an Anfield commentator in his latter years, who described Liverpool’s pursuit as "a gamble".
Such murmurs may explain why Liverpool twice baulked from signing Sturridge earlier. When Fernando Torres moved to Chelsea for £50 million in 2011 there was a brief discussion about involving a player swap. Liverpool just wanted cash.
Then in 2012 when Rodgers first took over he wanted further due diligence before committing to a deal six months later. Even then, there was none of the fanfare associated with a major signing. Sturridge did not even conduct an introductory press conference and the quotes welcoming him were doused in circumspection.
“If he wants to stay at this level, this is probably his last chance,” Rodgers said.
Sturridge has scored 32 goals in 39 Liverpool appearances since, eclipsing goal ratios of every striker in Europe as well as Kop legends. Last weekend he became the first striker since Ruud van Nistelrooy to score in eight consecutive Premier League games. He will, fitness permitting, lead England’s attack in the World Cup. It is not simply based on these performances that those who have helped along the way are now prepared to denounce what they claim was a trickle of misinformation about Sturridge’s true character.
When Sturridge effectively argued ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ to his ex-managers at City and Chelsea, his current form suggests he had a point. He’s certainly the best finisher at Liverpool since Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen.
Sturridge joined the Manchester City Academy aged 13 having earlier played at youth level for Aston Villa and Coventry City, moves which later contributed to his image as perennially unsettled.
Jim Cassell, City’s former Academy Director, recalls a player with a ferocious drive to be the best he could be, poles apart from one who was simply looking for the most lucrative deal.
“I must say the one thing I have read about Daniel that irritated me more than anything was when people used the word greedy. Absolute rubbish,” said Cassell.
“The only greed Daniel ever had was for success. He was ambitious and he had that incredible desire to do well you want in your young players.
“I can remember him telling me he wanted to become the youngest Premier League player in history at City. He knew how talented he was and he wanted to fulfil it. City had a very good reputation for bringing players through and that was the motivation for him coming to us because he believed we could help realise those ambitions.
“He was always a very polite, respectable young man who never gave us a minute’s trouble. He just delighted us with how he played.
“When we won the Youth Cup in 2008, Daniel was already playing and scoring goals for the first team. He was injured just before the second leg of the final against Chelsea so wasn’t available for us, but he came to see us asking to be picked because he wanted to help the team. This is after he has already moved up to the seniors. That’s how much of a team player he was.
“We were upset when he left City. Once they leave the Academy to join the first team set-up you don’t know what happens, really. All I know from my own experience working with him is he was a fantastic lad as a player and a person. In my opinion, he is the best English striker out there. He has always been technically brilliant and able to score any type of goals.”
One theory, one that would be repeated at Chelsea, is Sturridge’s had no inclination to be patient when the path to the first team was blocked by expensive signings who he didn’t believe warranted selection above him.
“There’s probably an element of that but I also think a lot of what we’re seeing from him at Liverpool now comes down to maturity,” said Cassell.
“Brendan Rodgers seems to know how to get the best from him and Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for the signing, seeing the potential was there.
“I don’t believe you can make a decision on a player at 18, particularly in the case of strikers, because they have to adapt to that higher level. Players like Daniel and Adam Lallana at Southampton are showing that it can be at 24 or 25 when you show what you can do week in, week out.”
Although Sturridge was handsomely rewarded for moving to Stamford Bridge in 2009, professional disillusionment remained as a succession of managers favoured their established strikers, such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, and their recently acquired record purchase, Torres. When Sturridge did play, he was accused of doing so for himself rather than team-mates.
It was Sturridge’s next move, a six month loan spell at Bolton in 2011, which offered a hint that this was not simply a case of player being difficult to manage, but perhaps more one of a goalscoring talent being underused.
“I spent an hour speaking with Daniel before we got him on loan and I have to say I have never met a young player with so much hunger and desire,” said former Bolton manager Owen Coyle, who saw Sturridge score eight in 11 games at the Reebok.
“It was fantastic to have someone so driven, so eager to learn and so determined to succeed. He’s a really humble kid.
“When Brendan was thinking of signing Daniel last season he called me up because obviously he was getting some background. I said I was excited for him and his club as much he would be for himself at what Daniel would do alongside a player like Luis Suárez.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him. I believe he can go on to become a truly world-class player. He scores every type of goal, has an incredible first touch and is great passing the ball, too. He will only get better.
“I wanted to keep him at Bolton longer. Andre Villas-Boas, who had just joined Chelsea, is a friend of mine because we did our coaching course together in Scotland. He said he’d take a look at Daniel in pre-season first. After a week, Andre called me up and said he was sorry but there was no way he could let a player of that quality go. He wanted him in his side, and to be fair he tried to integrate Daniel into the Chelsea team.
“I think where it is difficult for some of the younger players is when a team like Manchester City or Chelsea has strikers of £20 million or more who are always going to play, so it’s natural he would have been frustrated at times. But all this about Daniel’s attitude is a complete misconception. It is utter rubbish, actually. A myth.”
Sturridge’s reintegration at Chelsea as a winger meant he eventually lost patience with Villas-Boas, too. Roberto di Matteo barely picked him and his sale was agreed before Rafa Benítez moved to Stamford Bridge.
By the time Liverpool called again, his attractive valuation was countered by a presumption the Merseyside club’s training ground would need to recruit baggage handlers.
Rodgers management of Sturridge remains a combination of the carrot and stick, eulogies mixed with demands for improvement. He scored twice in the Merseyside derby but was immediately subbed after ignoring an easy pass to Suárez in pursuit of a hat-trick. The image of high maintenance still lingers, but few are talking about the gamble of signing him now.
Whatever the truth of the curious reputation that led the striker to six Premier League clubs by the age of 24, the nightmares Sturridge is prolonging these days are at the expense of the title rivals who allowed him to slip through their grasp.