Football fans are tribal sorts, more often than not, and their fierce partisan loyalty means that they are more than forgiving of the foibles, idiosyncrasies and flat-out character flaws of the athletes who besport the colours of their chosen club. Whilst this is clearly a morally ambiguous stance, it is no less common as a result. Oh certainly, it would be preferable if folk could marry their normal values to their passion for their favoured sporting institution, but that, dear readers, is as rare as a Hodgsonian Utopia. Many of us, for example, have found ourselves in murky moral waters over the last few years courtesy of the gnawing presence of a certain gifted Uruguayan gent.
Some players then, like Mario Balotelli or Luis Suárez, can occasionally test even the most myopic of zealots, causing a degree of awkwardness and discomfort to dilute the purity of their adoration. On rare occasions there may even be a Paul Konchesky or a Stewart Downing who seem to be emblematic of all that is wrong during a given era and whose every act seems to damn them to that most undesirable status of fan pariah. Only the most admirable of characters, like Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva, can ever claw their way back from that position.
Others, however, begin with admirable aplomb and simply add to the deep well of affection with each interview, gesture or on-pitch performance. Daniel Sturridge is one such footballer. The more one hears the articulate Birmingham native opine and expound on various subjects, the more enamoured one becomes. Simply put, he seems to be a very decent sort and possesses a charm and loquacious eloquence that even Brendan Rodgers must secretly envy.
Lest this come across as some kind of blinkered hagiography, let me first add a note of balance. To our eternal mortification, many of us bought the media narrative about Sturridge before he signed for Liverpool and as a result held our affection in abeyance, lest we be disappointed by this supposedly arrogant young star. As is mostly the case, the press portrait of the player was massively erroneous and from his first humorous and humble interview, through his endearingly goofy celebration dance, to his early series of winning goals, Daniel Sturridge gave the lie to all the lazy stereotypes and began a journey to the kind of fan affection that is only reserved for the very best.
There has been only one thing which has prevented him from being even more popular and beloved and that is the confounded delicacy of his frame. When players were injured in the late 60s and early 70s, Bill Shankly reportedly couldn't even look at them. He seemed almost affronted by their uselessness to him at that point, his frustration manifesting itself as disdain. Modern fans are perhaps not so extreme as the father of the modern era of Liverpool Football Club, but the extremely fragile nature of Daniel Sturridge's muscle tissue has most certainly been a source of unease this season, as the team, already shorn of the aforementioned Barcelona man, has looked maddeningly toothless in his absence.
At last, following the most irksome of false dawns, there seems to be a real chance that the England striker will feature in the near future alongside Balotelli. The extravagantly coiffed Italian has been sorely lacking a player of Sturridge's class alongside him in the attack and Rodgers has frustratingly persevered with his new forward as a lone spearhead. Suffice it to say that the result of this policy has been far from ideal, with Balotelli labouring and Liverpool struggling to breach the opponents' defence.
Tuesday evening's vital late goal for the number 45 and the dramatic last-gasp nature of the victory may have put a patina of positivity on things as Liverpool head into an intimidating sequence of fixtures but only the return of Sturridge will have fans breathing more easily. There are rumours that will happen sooner rather than later and the player himself has been full of praise for Balotelli, whetting fan appetite for what could potentially be one of the most entertaining and effective partnerships Liverpool have ever had. Sturridge was at pains to point out the admirable side of his new teammate's character and application, a side our friends in the popular media have chosen to resolutely ignore. (Hello Mr. Souness.) It gladdens the heart to hear Anfield's main man speak about the club's latest recruit.
"We get on well off the field and in the changing rooms," Liverpool's dancing striker told a well known radio station. "We're always laughing and joking. It's not hugely important to be friends to have a great (football) relationship with somebody, and if you're not friends you can still have a great partnership, but you can also be friends and have a great partnership. Once I get back fit I'm hoping we can strike up a partnership. Last season with Luis (Suarez) we had a great relationship up front and scored a lot of goals. Hopefully this season it will be the same. Mario has been under the microscope. That will always be the case when you play for a big club. You are going to have a lot of eyes on you. Mario's a great guy, and he's misunderstood sometimes. A lot of people are harsh on him. I get on really with him though. I have nothing but good words to say about him.
"He's working hard on the training field. People have told me he's working tirelessly to play the way we play. It's difficult moving to a new club and having new team-mates, it doesn't (always) just click straight away. Everybody is helping him and he's playing well. Sometimes you don't get the breaks in terms of scoring goals. Every striker goes through times when they don't score. A lot of stories have been put out about him in the past which aren't true. For him, it's difficult to shake off the celebrity (tag). He's a likeable person. I don't have any bad words to say about him. People don't realise what he's been through in his life to get where he is today."
On the topic of his own unfortunate susceptibility to injury, Sturridge is typically phlegmatic, calm and optimistic. Coming from a family of professional footballers who were similarly plagued by constant soft tissue damage, the forward has a theory that his affliction is genetic. As is his wont, however, he manages to make it seem like a minor inconvenience and insists that all will be well.
"I play my game as best I can, but I've been unfortunate this season," he offered. "Maybe it's my body type, maybe it's hereditary. Both my uncles (Dean and Simon, if you're wondering) had injuries, and my dad had them as well. Maybe it's the Caribbean vibes, maybe I have speed but maybe it makes you more vulnerable because of the fast twitch muscles and the speed in which you're moving. I am vulnerable to muscle injuries. As long as I continue to work hard everything will take care of itself."
As Liverpool fans stare into a particularly tough section of the remaining season they will take some consolation in their striker's apparent certainty that the future will be bright. At the dawn of the campaign, your scribbler was not alone in his giddy excitement at the thought of what a partnership of Daniel Sturridge and Mario Balotelli might achieve, when supplemented and prompted by the impish brilliance of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. That potential, glimpsed only fleetingly in the comprehensive defeat of Spurs, may be about to become manifest in the coming weeks. In the interim, kindly pester your chosen deity to render Sturridge's muscles impervious to further trauma for the rest of the season at least.