In a different world, Daniel Sturridge was never here.
In a different world he was in Moscow, preparing for the biggest game of his career, ready to make himself a national hero. Not at Prenton Park, playing 45 minutes of a pre-season friendly against a League Two side in front of a disinterested crowd. What was it Jimmy Greaves once said? It’s a funny old game.
What a sad state of affairs, for Sturridge and for Liverpool. It promised to be a beautiful relationship. It started so well. Now, it’s a marriage on the rocks. And these could be the final days and weeks.
As Liverpool evolve, Sturridge stands still, frustrated by his lot but scared to let go of it. Not quite fit enough or trusted enough to make a serious impact, but not yet ready to say goodbye for the last time.
This should really be the summer when the cord is cut, but a four-month loan spell with West Bromwich Albion left more questions than answers. He left Liverpool in search of game-time, harbouring tentative hopes of earning a place in England’s World Cup squad. He got two starts, 116 minutes in total and yet another injury. He missed out on the chance to feature in a Champions League final too. West Brom fared even worse; they were relegated.
And so he returns to Anfield, to stand in the ‘what next?’ queue. It’s a lengthy one, too. Sturridge’s name sits with the likes of Simon Mignolet, Divock Origi, Ryan Kent, Sheyi Ojo, Harry Wilson, Marko Grujic and Ben Woodburn, among others. What Klopp does with those players – sell, loan or keep – remains to be seen.
In Sturridge’s case, it may come down to options. He had a few when choosing West Brom back in January, but as yet there have been no serious offers for Liverpool to consider this summer. Newcastle’s interest has cooled, as has Inter Milan’s. Sevilla have enquired and Fenerbahce continue to be linked. Liverpool would ideally want £15million, but Sturridge’s wages, well in excess of £100,000 a week, make finding a buyer difficult. West Brom, remarkably, covered his salary in full during his loan spell, such was their desperation.
In the meantime, he gets the chance to light up Chester and Tranmere and Bury and Blackburn while his peers, lesser talents in many cases, compete for the World Cup. Sturridge led the line for England in Brazil four years ago; now, he must look at Danny Welbeck and Jamie Vardy and wonder where it all went wrong. Injuries have robbed him of what should have been the best years of his career. Now, it’s about damage limitation.
The spark still flickers, of course. It always will with a player so gifted. There are still those moments where you begin to wonder if he could, maybe, get back to the player he was. When he takes a ball in with that adhesive touch, spins away from a defender with a swivel of the hips or unfurls one of those pure, unerring strikes off his left foot, Liverpool fans are transported again. Back to 2013/14. The world really was different then.
“I know about Daniel’s quality,” Klopp said after Saturday’s game at Chester, in which Sturridge scored two goals of effortless ease. “It takes a lot for him to impress me!”
There were no such fireworks at Tranmere, though Sturridge looked fit and lean, sharper indeed than either Origi or Dominic Solanke, his de facto ‘rivals’ for a spot as Liverpool’s reserve striker. If talent is the only criteria, then there should be no contest.
“They have all the quality we need, you can see that,” Klopp said. “They are really good footballers.
“They train and they play, they are nice fellas so it’s good to have them around, and at the end let’s see how it fits.
“It’s all about the boys. My door is wide open, so why should I make a decision now? I watch the games, I watch the sessions and then I will make a decision at some point. That’s not today and it’s not next week, it is at the right time.
“I would be really crazy if I did not give these players a chance. They are fantastic players who have played fantastic games, we will see what happens.”
The smart money says it is time for a parting of the ways, as much for Sturridge as for Liverpool. He remains young enough and gifted enough to make an impact somewhere, but the stats don’t lie. Under Klopp, he has started just 32 games in total. He retains a reputation as a prolific goalscorer, but his last four seasons have brought just 28 goals. He turns 29 in September; can he afford to potentially lose another six months of his career on the bench or in the stands? He's better than that.
There will be sadness if indeed he does depart this summer. The memories of those first 18 months on Merseyside still bring a smile. The dance and the goals lit up Anfield for a spell.
Football waits for nobody, though. Liverpool have moved on. Now, it is surely time for Sturridge to do the same.