DANIEL Sturridge will have been glad of his substitute’s cameo as Chelsea thrashed Atletico Madrid last night. Not only did he get his first experience of Champions League football, he also saw his appearance time for the season rocket from six minutes to 18.
Sturridge’s move from Manchester City was one of the more curious Premier League transfers of the summer. It made sense for Chelsea, who have been keen to increase the number of English players in their squad before the Premier League adopts UEFA’s ‘homegrown’ rule next season. Whether it’s making a whole lot of sense for Sturridge is another matter.
The striker was by no means a regular during his time at City. He only made 12 starts for the club in all competitions – and just five of those were in the Premier League.
He did, however, prove himself a useful striker when coming on as a sub. A very smartly-taken goal at Blackburn last December kick-started a fightback from 2-0 down to earn a draw at a time when Mark Hughes was going through a very wobbly spell at Eastlands.
It was around that time that Sturridge’s contract issues at Eastlands started to become public. The striker was in the final season of a three-year deal, and his advisers were reportedly asking for a new contract worth £65,000 a week. Given that captain Richard Dunne was on less than that, it was understandable that City were reluctant to grant such a deal.
Sturridge’s contract ran out, and Chelsea moved in for a player they had first been linked with back in 2006, when he sprang to national prominence with two goals in an FA Youth Cup final defeat against Liverpool shown live on Sky.
That was the first time I saw Sturridge play in the flesh, and it was obvious that he had talent. He was strong in possession, had a good eye for goal and had the incredible self-confidence that every good striker needs. He was part of a good City youth side which also included Micah Richards and Michael Johnson. Johnson and Sturridge soon joined Richards as members of the first-team squad.
But while Richards and Johnson initially made a smooth transition to Premier League football (both have found the going much harder, for different reasons, over the last two years), Sturridge took a little longer to find his feet, not helped by hip and hamstring injuries – possibly attributable to growing pains – which slowed his progress.
Around the time Sturridge made his first-team debut for City, in early 2007, I got the chance to interview him. He came across as a very ambitious, determined character. “It doesn’t really matter how long I get on the park; as soon as I get on there, I just want to try to influence it,” he said at the time.
In a separate interview, around 18 months later, he told how his father Michael’s failure to make the first-team breakthrough at Birmingham City had driven him to ensure he didn’t settle for reserve-team football himself.
“It’s important for me to know that reserve-team football doesn’t really count for anything,” Sturridge said in that interview. “The main thing is to get into the first team. You can play in the reserves, but the first team is the ultimate aim.”
Given that statement, it is tempting to wonder how long Sturridge will be prepared to put up with watching Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from the Stamford Bridge bench.
So far this season, Sturridge has been limited to two brief substitute appearances; six minutes at Sunderland in August, 12 minutes last night. It’s more than Ross Turnbull has managed, but there aren’t many other Chelsea players with a squad number who have had less exposure this season.
And that surely can’t have been part of the plan for Sturridge, even allowing for the fact that he only turned 20 last month. At the start of the season, several observers (I’ll pick the Daily Telegraph at random, but they weren’t alone) suggested that he might be an outside bet for England’s World Cup squad next summer. While a lot could change over the next few months, it’s not looking likely at the moment.
Sturridge will be looking to enjoy more success than the last Manchester City player to move to Chelsea. Shaun Wright-Phillips moved to Stamford Bridge in 2005 as a big part of the England set-up. But his appearances at Chelsea were so sporadic that he missed out on the 2006 World Cup squad altogether. After starting only around a third of Chelsea’s games during his three years there, Wright-Phillips returned to City, where he looks much more at home.
It could be argued that Sturridge would still have struggled for regular first-team football had he stayed at City. Would he have found a way past Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz? I believe he would have fancied his chances.
The other young strikers to have made City first-team breakthroughs around the same time as Sturridge have moved on – Ched Evans went to Sheffield United, while Kelvin Etuhu’s attempts to prove himself during a season-long loan at Cardiff have been thwarted by a long-term injury.
Sturridge did, at least, secure himself a move to a bigger club than Evans and Etuhu did. That’s because he is a better striker; one who is good enough to play for a Premier League club on a regular basis. Maybe he will, eventually. It would certainly be a shame if his talent went to waste.