Gareth Southgate promised no major surprises when he decided to name England's World Cup squad early. And so when it was announced on Wednesday, few lingered over the omission of Daniel Sturridge.
The 28-year-old, unable to prevent West Bromwich Albion's descent into the Championship following an injury-hit loan spell, will become the answer to a pub quiz question if Liverpool beats Real Madrid on May 26. In the same season, he would have been both relegated and won the Champions League. Sturridge played 83 goalless group-stage minutes in the early part of the Merseysiders' continental run, so is able to receive his second winners medal in the competition after being an unused substitute in Chelsea's 2012 triumph.
Sturridge is unlikely to pull a John Terry – quickly don his kit so he doesn't look like the odd-one-out in the victory photos – in Kyiv, but his probable absence from the celebrations will be a stark reminder of just how far he has fallen from the player who reached 20 goals faster than any player in the history of Liverpool, and who has been in 47 England squads.
Not many people in football know Sturridge as well as Jim Cassell, the former head of Manchester City's academy who honed the talents of Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kieran Trippier, Micah Richards, Joey Barton, and many others. Cassell found all he had to say to Sturridge to elicit a performance was "Daniel, we need you tonight." The fledgling's natural football brain didn't need direction from coaches who had predominantly led modest playing careers.
"He's a terrific talent, still as talented as any English striker that we've got in the country in terms of technical ability," Cassell told theScore. "He's great at creating chances for himself; his movement in the box is excellent, he's always able to find space; he's able to play with the others, which is a great, great quality. I think he could play with any top players in the world without any doubt.
"He's a good link-up player, he's got excellent vision, and he's got a terrific football brain."
Cassell says Sturridge only missed one important match for the club's academy teams – when City completed a defeat of Chelsea in the second leg of the 2008 FA Youth Cup final – due to an injury suffered on senior duty. However, the stream of injuries that has almost drawn Sturridge's career to a halt has left him with "a stigma." Rather than being reminded of his qualities – something that, from what his old coach says, appears to motivate the striker – his fitness problems are continually pored over, perhaps with a detrimental effect to his confidence, and certainly to his club and international commitments.
"Daniel is a perfectionist, and sometimes perfectionists really don't cope very well with the setbacks. What might be a very painful knock to somebody else might be a game out to Daniel, I would accept that," Cassell disclosed on Sturridge's personality in his early days as a professional.
"It's very difficult to manage top-class talent – and he is top class – and I always used to think that's how you earn your money.
"I never thought for one minute I was going to tell Daniel Sturridge how to play, but what I was going to do was make sure that he was fit and in the right frame of mind and trusted me and my staff to believe in him enough to play to the full extent of what he did. He never, ever let us down at youth level. Never."
Cassell confesses that he hasn't been in contact with Sturridge in recent years, but the image he paints is of an incredibly gifted footballer with a natural on-pitch intelligence, albeit one that needs support.
Now that he's due back at Liverpool, he is Klopp's concern once more. Although evidence of his skills have been fleeting since the German boss' October 2015 appointment – and opportunities scarce, making 20 league starts from a possible 106 for the Reds – Sturridge's manager has seen something in the former Manchester City and Chelsea man that he likes.
"I said to him after the game, 'Now I know what everybody is talking about,'" Klopp said after using Sturridge for just the second time in a 6-1 League Cup bashing of Southampton in December 2015. "I knew about his quality, not live in a stadium, but in an important tournament.
"He can't play every game. He needs to decide when it's time to fight and when to rest. The problem with Daniel is we didn't know how long he could play but, if that's the case, he has to start."
Except now it's difficult to see him doing anything for Liverpool – even deepening a groove on the bench. Sturridge cannot want that anyway, and criticism regarding his off-the-ball movement and comprehension of Klopp's tactics mean he's unlikely to trouble the remorseless front trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah in the starting XI if he remained on Merseyside.
The 2017-18 term must be written off as a waste – one that began with charitable cameos at Liverpool, and ended with being an expensive, injured loanee at doomed West Brom – and Sturridge now needs to find a mentor that will foster his belief and carefully manage his fitness problems. He is set for a move that could salvage his career or land a fatal blow to a journey that initially looked destined for stardom.
Sturridge should now be at his peak and forging a wealth of options in England's attack with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. Instead, there were more calls for Andy Carroll to be in the squad than there were for Sturridge.
"I'm frustrated for him because he should be one of the first names on the team sheet to go to Russia," Cassell said. "He won't because he's not been playing."
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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