Liverpool can claim the title -- Suarez
Uruguayan winning hearts and minds along with fans' player of year award, writes Henry Winter
Fair play to Luis Suarez. Liverpool's controversial centre-forward turned up at the Emirates last night, a No 7 dressed to the nines, arriving early and staying late because he wanted to talk to fans from a variety of clubs who had just voted him the Football Supporters' Federation Player of the Year. Suarez must have felt after all the criticism that this was a night of acceptance, of redemption.
Maybe the English are not so bad after all. Maybe they can be magnanimous. Maybe they can call players to deserved account when they transgress, as Suarez did against Patrice Evra and Branislav Ivanovic, but they can also praise, salute and bestow awards on special talent. More than 500,000 fans voted in the competition, choosing Suarez ahead of Robin van Persie, Leighton Baines, Christian Benteke, Juan Mata and Pablo Zabaleta.
Even if some allowance is made for Liverpool fans' noted assiduousness in campaigning, Suarez's success also highlights further the forgiveness of the football fan. He caused brief outrage when attempting to leave Anfield in the summer. Arsenal offered £40,000,001 yet he turned up on Monday evening for nothing, for the sheer delight that his abilities were being celebrated by fans. He arrived with his wife Sofia, clearly a huge guiding force in his life, and spoke passionately about what this honour meant.
"It's very special for me because my hard work on the pitch is recognised,'' said Suarez. "Everybody knows about my problems and my difficult year.''
For all his well-known transgressions, fans also know about Suarez's prodigious gifts, his ability to steer a ball past panicking defenders. His touch, balance and finishing skills one-on-one with a 'keeper were all paraded during Sunday's 5-0 defeat of Spurs.
He sensed why fans voted for him. The 26-year-old gives his all, and that is what supporters want from their players. He made fleeting references to issues growing up in Uruguay, the hard times, making football such a vital release. "When I was a child I had too many problems, but I could try my best on the pitch,'' said Suarez. "I just love playing football. I play with my heart."
Heart and clever feet. It is why he is being spoken of as a £70m player, why Real Madrid will again be linked with his phenomenal services if Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League. Yet with the likes of Suarez, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho in formidable form, and Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge to return, Liverpool can continue to maintain their high position in the table under the adventurous, popular Brendan Rodgers. Suarez could stay.
He has certainly been moved by the response of the club he tried to escape from. Liverpool fans know class, particularly when wrapped in a red No 7 shirt, and they welcomed him back warmly.
Pragmatism? Generosity of spirit? Whatever misgivings they had were forgotten the moment Suarez stepped back on the field, giving everything for the team. On an evening of celebrating supporters' influence, Suarez particularly acknowledged the support of the Kop. "Coming back to play at Anfield was unbelievable because after so many difficult moments for me I was able to win the supporters back,'' he reflected.
"They helped me, and that was important for me, for my confidence, and for my family, because they are together with me in this. I have to thank my team-mates for this award because if Liverpool don't have these players I cannot continue my level. If we continue at this level over the next two or three weeks we can win the league or definitely finish in the top four.''
He enjoyed being captain in Gerrard's absence through injury but was determined to demonstrate his team-minded nature. "I was a little surprised by getting the armband but we have only one captain here, Steven Gerrard.''
He smiled at mention of his Uruguay facing Gerrard's England in Sao Paulo on June 19. "Before the draw I hoped we would not face England,'' said Suarez. "But when the ball in the draw said we would face England it was unbelievable! I sent Stevie a text. Stevie sent a (joking) message back to me saying 'England are so lucky!' We were laughing because it's so funny. But it will be very, very difficult. Italy, Uruguay, England all have good players. So do Costa Rica.''
Just after 9.0, Suarez caught the last train back to Liverpool from Euston. He had made many friends. At 8.0, Suarez had the organisers at the Emirates announce that he was staying to the last moment and anyone wanting a photograph or chat "should come to table 11". Fair play to Suarez. (© Daily Telegraph, London)