England hurtle towards their destiny-defining World Cup qualifiers with total faith in Daniel Sturridge, a centre-forward with only 55 minutes’ competitive international experience and who has partnered Wayne Rooney only in friendly combat and only for 30 minutes. It’s not blind faith. England’s belief is understandable because at 24, and liberated at Liverpool by Brendan Rodgers, Sturridge has finally come of age.
He has been at major clubs before, at Manchester City and Chelsea, but never given the trust and run of games he craved, always finding his path blocked by £50m signings or his influence inhibited by being pushed out wide. For too long, Sturridge has been adjacent to major events rather than in the middle of them. He has featured in an FA Cup final but also sat frustrated on the bench in a Champions League final. Too often the onlooker, rarely the leading light.
Sturridge’s career was also stymied by injury and flaws in his approach. Too selfish, the critics said. Too one-footed, they added. A promising career meandered. This is a player who first stepped on a Premier League pitch more than six years ago and who first scored in the Champions League three years ago. Only now is potential becoming eye-catching reality. Eight goals in nine Liverpool games this season signals the change. This maturing has come through listening and learning.
Sturridge has always been surrounded by those offering good advice. Aged seven, he was shown videos of Pele by his father Michael, a decent non-League player. He acquired his dribbling skills slaloming through cones at Michael’s soccer school where Nathan Delfouneso’s talents were also nurtured. His education continued at the Academies of Aston Villa, Coventry City and then City.
His spell on loan from Chelsea at Bolton Wanderers helped: Owen Coyle gave him the starting place he desired, building his confidence, while Kevin Davies toughened him up in training. Back at Cobham, Sturridge noted how hard the right-footed John Terry worked on his left foot, allowing him to pass with either whatever the pressure. Sturridge was having lessons but was just unable to put them into action.
Wise family voices are all around Sturridge, including uncles Dean and Simon, former strikers of considerable repute in the Midlands and elsewhere. Dean talks to Daniel regularly, encouraging him to practice, practice, practice. This year, Sturridge’s determination to make himself a more effective all-round centre-forward has led to extra training at Melwood devoted purely to his right foot. The left remains his principal weapon but an increased willingness to shoot with either foot was noticeable against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
If England do qualify for Brazil, Roy Hodgson should buy Rodgers the first Caipirinha. Liverpool’s current manager brought Sturridge to Anfield for £12 million, gave him the belief, the stage and the support both on and off the field. Assiduously attentive to detail, Rodgers has overseen Sturridge’s burgeoning partnership with Luis Suárez, spending time with the pair at Melwood, shaping their understanding. Some of it is instinctive. A few days after joining, Sturridge dummied for Suárez to score against Norwich. With Philippe Coutinho or Victor Moses in the hole of Rodgers’ new 3-4-1-2 system, Sturridge does not need to drop off and can stay up where he belongs, darting and dribbling in and around the box.
Liverpool, and Rodgers’ management, has been the making of Sturridge. On arriving at Anfield, Sturridge spoke of his delight and also his gratitude to Rodgers. He knew this was a huge chance, possibly his last chance at a heavyweight club following disappointment at City and Chelsea. He spoke of being “humbled” by the opportunity.
Everyone from Rodgers to the Sturridge family deserves credit for his development but ultimately it was the player who decided to leave Chelsea, who tackled the gaps in his game, who improved his decision-making with his final ball.
Those who have long followed Sturridge’s career have seen him transformed from the slightly selfish, slightly hit-and-miss target-man for Team GB at last year’s Olympics.
He is now a more authoritative presence on the pitch, his thought process apparently assisted by reading Jamie Smart’s “Clarity”, a book aimed at focusing the mind better. Established at Liverpool, Sturridge now needs to cement himself in England’s starting line-up.
He has only one goal in six caps under three coaches, Fabio Capello, caretaker Stuart Pearce and now Hodgson. Of Sturridge’s 201 minutes with England, less than an hour is competitive (21 minutes in the 1-1 home draw with Ukraine when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and 34 minutes against San Marino in Serravalle last March when he came on for Rooney).
Rooney and Sturridge have shared a field for only 30 minutes until Sturridge limped off in the friendly with the Republic of Ireland in May. Now they form an international rescue double act. To think it was only a month ago that Sturridge was being assailed on social-media sites by England fans for withdrawing from the games against Moldova and Ukraine and for some misinterpreted comments. In an interview with Liverpool’s website, Sturridge remarked that he was “more worried about putting in good performances for us [Liverpool]” than thinking about England.
He was simply making the sensible point that England is a privilege that comes to those who deliver for their clubs. Annoyed by fans’ splenetic reaction, Sturridge tweeted a clarification, noting that “England is the pinnacle”. Sturridge’s ascent towards the pinnacle has been circuitous but he’s getting there.