Seemingly destined to go down as one of English football’s great unfulfilled talents after frustrating spells at the Etihad Stadium and Chelsea, the striker is a rejuvenated player
By Paul Clennam
In 2006, at the age of just 16, Daniel Sturridge turned out for Manchester City in an FA Youth Cup final already firmly destined for the big time.
Within 18 months he had gone on to sign his first professional contract, make his full debut, and become the first player in history to score in the FA Youth Cup, the FA Cup and the Premier League in the same season.
Expectation was clear; Sturridge would go on to establish himself in the Manchester City first team – a shining light of the club’s academy programme and new owner Sheikh Mansour’s petrodollar revolution.
And yet on Sunday, when City and Liverpool meet in what is being billed as this campaign’s title decider, Sturridge will line up in red rather than blue – with many in the Eastlands back corridors still wondering how they let the England forward slip through their fingers.
It is at Liverpool, not City, that the now 24-year-old has blossomed, scoring 30 goals in just 39 appearances since arriving in January 2013, forging unarguably one of the league’s most deadly strike partnerships alongside Luis Suarez, and taking the Reds to the brink of what would be a sensational first league title since 1990.
And yet, this is not a simple story of a young prodigy being overlooked or cast aside wantonly. It has taken the steadying hand of Brendan Rodgers to massage the best out of Sturridge – a player who, despite enormously bright beginnings, at one point looked destined to be a talent unfulfilled less than 18 months ago.
At City, Sturridge’s perceived arrogance was as much to blame for his Eastlands dream turning sour as anything else.
Having arrived via Aston Villa and Coventry as a 14-year-old for a fee, set by tribunal, of up to £230,000, Sturridge’s rise up the ranks worked alongside a growing swagger regarded as increasingly cocky within the ranks.
His talent rarely in question, still the young Englishman often clashed with team-mates. On one occasion, against Arsenal in November 2008, Sturridge refused to allow regular penalty-taker Elano to take an 89th-minute spot-kick he had earned, insisting he take it instead. He wrestled the ball away from the Brazil international and duly converted – but the 18-year-old’s apparently disrespectful approach won him few fans.
And so, when in 2009 and with his contract expiring, Sturridge demanded a huge pay hike, then manager Mark Hughes took the decision not to match his demands. Having already offered to double Sturridge’s wages to around £50,000-a-week, Hughes was unwilling to match an offer of £75,000 a week from Chelsea – and his striker duly departed.
A period of fallow frustration followed at Stamford Bridge. Shifted from lead frontman to wide attacker, Sturridge became an increasingly fringe member of a squad trying to come to terms with Jose Mourinho’s departure. Just 13 goals in more than 60 appearances and a six-month loan out to Bolton Wanderers underlined his struggles.
Still, there were admiring glances being cast from up the road at Manchester City. Roberto Mancini, so unimpressed by his predecessor’s failure to keep Sturridge in the City ranks, gave serious consideration to launching a bid to re-sign the player and rescue him from what was becoming a Chelsea nightmare in the summer of 2012.
As it was he turned his attentions elsewhere, leaving Sturridge still scratching around for form and even a future by the close of the year.
And so it was that Liverpool and Rodgers swept in to snap up the frontman for £12m in January 2013, the birth point of Sturridge’s regeneration.
“Brendan Rodgers knows what I need,” he told the press in November. “I needed to be believed in, to play as a centre-forward at a club, and I didn’t get that at Chelsea.
“He gave me the opportunity to do that here. It’s great to be part of his philosophy. He gets the most out of his players and makes us want to win for him.”
Regarded as a risk by many at the time, a signing of a player long since past realising his potential, it has turned out to be nothing short of inspired.
In a strange quirk of fate, Steven Gerrard was among those looking on as Sturridge stole the show in that 2006 Youth Cup final, scoring twice in the second leg to pull City within a goal of levelling the tie on aggregate, only for Liverpool to hold on for a 3-2 win.
Now he is in Gerrard’s esteemed company as they both go in hunt of the ultimate prize.
No one could argue Sturridge has proven a catastrophic loss to City. A league title, FA Cup and embarrassment of riches in attack in the likes of Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez and more recently Sergio Aguero put paid to that argument.
But even so, with his place in England’s World Cup squad guaranteed on the back of a sensational season that could yet culminate in a first Liverpool league title in 24 years, few could argue either that Sturridge is not among the biggest of fish to have slipped through City’s net in recent years.
And on Sunday, he could yet rub more salt into that wound by leading Liverpool to a victory that would make them firm title favourites and jettison his former club back amongst the chasing pack.
It would be some turnaround.