A paradox of humanity is centered on the ability for an individual to change. We have loads of literature and works of art across various mediums devoted to the idea of reinvention: Mad Men’s Don Draper, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and even real life examples of the struggling person made good because what is the story of American bootstrap-ism if not one of reinvention?
There are many, though, who posit that no one really changes. That the idea of reinvention is a bit of a mirage. And that’s the simmering tension that lies under the aforementioned works of art and even among true-to-life successes: do people ever really change?
On the football pitch this summer, we’re looking to find out. Hot on the heels of the Lovren-aissance, we have the emergence of the feel-good story of the summer: Daniel Sturridge, Rebirth.
To start with Daniel Sturridge’s story, we have to go back to his beginning as a highly-touted, if enigmatic, Chelsea prospect. A striker by trade, Sturridge found his path to the pitch blocked by the legendary Didier Drogba. As such, he took a loan out with Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers and lit the league a light with his performances. It was on that Bolton side that I first came across Sturridge - I was following them due to my interest in seeing how Stuart Holden would do. Sturridge immediately caught the eye with his finesse, skill, and vision. For a striker, he wasn’t merely adept at finding the back of the net, he seemed to understand the game, read seams and space well, and could even pick a runner if that option presented itself. He looked a legend in the making.
But when he went back to Chelsea and eventually was shunted out wide during Andre Villa-Boas’s tenure, it became clear things might turn untenable. Here was a striker who looked on the verge of breaking through, but on a team that now had Fernando Torres ahead of him, he once more was tasked with being a square peg in a round hole. And though the press reported whispers of a row, I only remembered Sturridge’s interviews both during that time and while back at Bolton as very much team-oriented. Yes, he’d answer honestly about preferring to play as a striker/center forward but he would be willing to do what was asked of him. He came off as a team-first sort. I think this is when I fully embraced my admiration for him.
So, it came as a bit of a shock that in the winter of 2012, when it became clear that rumors of Liverpool interest in poaching Daniel Sturridge looked likely, some Liverpool fans not only espoused skepticism over Sturridge’s quality, but many heaped questions on his personality. Wondering openly if he would accept playing second-banana to Luis Suarez. There had been, to my recollection, no reason to worry and his goal-scoring record at Bolton spoke loudly to me at the time, so I felt very secure in my belief that Sturridge would light Anfield alight.
Still, I couldn’t square the stand-offish vibe that I felt among some sectors of the fanbase as it related to Sturridge.
To put it simply, from his debut in January of 2012 to the end of the 2013-2014 season, Daniel Sturridge was superb. A striker whose excellence was only surpassed by his own teammate during that tenure. Scintillating is one word to describe it. A joy is another. Playing off the shoulder, opening space up for Suarez, or mind-melding with Coutinho, Sturridge was everything one could have hoped for on the pitch.
Off it, impossibly, he was better. He played wherever the gaffer asked him to. He carried water during Suarez’s suspensions. He has mentored younger players such as Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe. And who can forget this moment, which should have endeared him into the hearts of the Anfield faithful forever.
But then, the injuries happened.
It’s easies to love someone at their best. But love is perhaps most honestly expressed when someone is at their worst. Sturridge found the next few seasons difficult, to say the least. In and out of the line-up due to injury and without the extra space afforded by Luis Suarez, his ability to contribute declined. When he found the pitch, the occasion for magic still existed. Like in this outside the boot curler in the Europa League Final.
But the lack of consistent playing time meant he was relegated to the background.
Last season was a bit of a low-point in his career in Red: many in the fanbase looked ready to throw in the towel. I even started trying to come to peace with the idea of Sturridge elsewhere, collecting my first jersey with a number in his honor and having my friends surprise me with the gift of all LFC gifts: a signed Sturridge jersey from the 2013-2014 season.
It all felt like a prelude to goodbye and when Studge went on loan to West Bromwich Albion and subsequently ended up injured, that goodbye felt inevitable and immediate. I wondered what song I might sing to a man who had not been given a song.
Whispers this summer of a potential Daniel Sturridge revival stoked the embers of my love back into a fire. It may have been a slow burn at first - never doubting that the man who spoke openly about wanting to give his all for the Anfield faithful would do so now - but it is a roaring flame once more.
Descriptions of Sturridge looking to move into a bit more of a playmaker/false nine made me excited: his natural sense of space and uncanny movement make him, in my opinion, a natural to fill this role. Who better to pull apart center backs to make way for the inside-out games of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah than the master of breaking down center backs himself? And who better than to make those same defenses pay if they lay off him and dare him to shoot than the deadly sniper? It makes loads of sense.
So, maybe, what we’re seeing isn’t so much a rebirth or a true reinvention as much as the next chapter in the story of Daniel Sturridge and Liverpool Football Club. The story of a hardworking, immensely talented lad who gives his all for the club, and loves the fans, finding a way to contribute even as the circumstances around him have changed. Sturridge isn’t different, per se: that finesse, that vision, that movement, that dedication to craft and club, have always been apparent. It’s that the club have finally found a new role to utilize those gifts fully.
And what a treat is is for those of us who’ve fallen for Sturridge’s classy skills and classier off-pitch style from the beginning. To see this man who helped claw the club out of one of its darkest times with scintillating play. And who stuck with the club despite some of his contemporaries abandoning ship.
What a reward to see him now, a bit of an elder statesman and an obvious leader in the clubhouse, to don the armband during pre-season. What joy it will be if he were to wear it during a match this campaign.
And maybe, finally, the Kop can bestow upon him a gift long past-due: a song of his own to dance to.