There are all kinds of reasons why on-loan Daniel Sturridge is better off spending the second half of this season at the Bolton Wanderers training ground than at Chelsea's, and the greatly diminished risk of getting shot by Ashley Cole is only one of them.
Like Arsenal's Jack Wilshere last season, Sturridge has bagged at Bolton what he so coveted in London: a firm place in the starting XI. Being Cup-tied, he has played no part in the thrilling run to Wembley, yet with four goals in his first five league games he has Bolton fans crying for the move to be made permanent. If he finds the net at Old Trafford tomorrow, the cries will become a clamour. Except, of course, that Chelsea will again be reminded what an asset they have in a 21-year-old striker who these past few weeks has proved somewhat deadlier in front of goal than the £50m Fernando Torres.
Sturridge, meanwhile, is playing down the speculation that he might like a transfer away from a club that can currently pick a forward line from Torres, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou. "I'm looking forward to going back at the end of the season, to rekindling friendships, to being a Chelsea player again. I'm contracted to Chelsea for another three years and I want to see that contract out. Obviously you can never say never in football, but Chelsea is still where my heart is. Saying that, I realised in the [Bolton] game against Tottenham how much it means for me to be playing here. To lose [2-1] in the last minute was one of the most painful feelings I've had for a long time. At Chelsea, I was on the bench so much, and you don't feel the brunt of a loss in the same way."
Sturridge, confronting the perennial dilemma of the on-loan player, chooses his words carefully. He is a bright and engaging young man, talking to me in a corporate box at the Reebok Stadium as part of his commitments to Disney XD, whose Aim High initiative offers youngsters the chance to be mentored, one-to-one, by top sportsmen.
His own one-to-one mentoring came from his father Michael, who never quite made it as a top professional footballer, and uncles Dean and Simon, who emphatically, net-bulgingly, did. Dean Sturridge played 190 times for Derby County, scoring 53 goals, and Simon Sturridge 150 times for Birmingham City, scoring 30.
"But my dad was my biggest inspiration," Sturridge says. "He had a soccer school, in fact he coached Nathan Delfouneso who's now at Aston Villa. He taught me everything I know. The way I dribble now comes from all the dribbling through cones I did, and when I was seven or eight he used to make me sit down and watch videos of Pele, again and again." The immediate payback for Michael Sturridge was a son who much preferred wrestling to football; not even going to see his uncles play could compete with the boy's love for WWF. But in time it would inculcate an appetite for self-improvement that he retains to this day.
"Since coming here I've learnt a lot from Kevin Davies," says Sturridge. "I've never seen a player win so many headers, and playing with him has taught me to put myself about a bit more, maybe toughen up a bit. I think he brings out the best in me, and we get on really well, which helps. In any [training-ground] situation, if there are pairs then it's always me and Kevin. And I can talk to him about anything."
While more than a few other teams were interested in taking Sturridge on loan, he claims that his own interest was confined to Bolton. "I knew Jack did well here, and Fabrice Muamba is a good friend from the England Under-21s. Also, Zat Knight is a family friend I've known since I was young. And I liked the manager [Owen Coyle], who's a really nice guy and a fantastic man manager. He keeps everyone happy, the morale here is amazing. It's easy to join a team like this. No one ever seems to be upset about anything."
If the implication is that Chelsea's Cobham training ground is, by comparison, not quite such a place of joy and brotherly love, Sturridge leaves it unsaid. What, though, are the differences between Coyle and Carlo Ancelotti?
"At Chelsea, there's more focus on team shape, a lot of work on tactics. Here, the focus is on players feeling good about themselves. It's two different styles of management, and both work well in their own way. But it's a great learning curve for me to be around a different way of training. Here we play five-a-side every day, which every player loves. It's a lot more fun. You come away with a smile on your face."
Despite this enthusiasm for all things Bolton, his loyalty to Chelsea is absolute, although he's prepared to say that he wasn't getting the opportunities there that he felt he deserved. "That's football, though. It's not easy anywhere in the world for a young player to get opportunities at a big club."
And so to the £50m question: does he feel those opportunities will recede even further now that the No 9 shirt belongs to Torres? "I'm happy he's joined," he says, again neatly nutmegging the question. "The club needs to progress, and he makes the squad stronger than it was before. I hope Didier stays too. He's a great footballer, and I respect him so much, as a man off the field, not just as a player. But I believe I'm good enough to start at Chelsea regularly, and when I get the chance I'll prove to everyone that I should be a regular. Football's no different from any other workplace. If you're not doing the job you think you're capable of, it's frustrating. And I'm aiming for the stars. I'm not content with being in the shadows."
It is stirringly put, and it could be that he's echoing what his father has said to him. His dad was on the books at Birmingham City, but never made the first team, and eventually drifted into non-league football. Sturridge himself, by contrast, joined Manchester City's academy when he was 13, and made his debut for City at 17. In 2007-08, he became the first player to score in the FA Youth Cup, the FA Cup and the Premier League in the same season. Then, in the summer of 2009, he joined Chelsea. So is there a sense in which Michael Sturridge has realised his own ambitions through his son?
"I don't know about that. I do know that he wants the best for me, and has always wanted to help me achieve something he couldn't. No amount of money can help me repay him for that. My mum also, for everything they've done for me. All these holidays I give them come from the bottom of my heart, but it doesn't repay them."
With a Premier League championship medal and an FA Cup winner's medal (he came on as a 90th-minute substitute in last year's final) with Chelsea, he is already the most successful footballing Sturridge, and doubtless the wealthiest. I ask him whether his uncle Dean, still only 37, ever reflects ruefully on the kind of wages commanded by the modern-day footballer.
"No, it's just great to have an uncle who's played the game. We laugh and joke, and he's so competitive with me at table tennis, at pool, even at dominoes. We just enjoy the time we spend together. We never talk about money."
Then let us talk about money instead. Is he aware of the pitfalls facing young men who, scarcely into their twenties, are earning seven-figure salaries? "Yeah, but footballers are like anyone else, they just want to live the way they dreamed of when they were young. Me, I don't want to be arrogant or to show off. I treat everyone with the same respect they treat me with. Just because I earn more money doesn't make me more special than them, or give me the right to talk to them in a certain manner." Again, well said. But he must sometimes mix with footballers who think that their wealth and status give them exactly that right. "I don't get myself into those situations. I associate with my cousins, family, old schoolfriends. I don't socialise with footballers. I want the people around me I've always had."
It is an admirable philosophy, and one he intends to carry with him to the stars. In the meantime, he knows how much work is required to get there. "And if I do work hard, I hope I'll end up playing regularly for England. I'm trying to impress with the Under-21s, though when you're only coming on for 15 minutes for your club you can't show what you're able to do. Now I can."
Nonetheless, it's hard to know what the next couple of seasons have in store for a young man who so craves the chance to shine. The bench at Stamford Bridge is as hard and unyielding as the bench anywhere else, but assuming he goes back, he has no intention of routinely warming it again.
"At Chelsea I'm among world-class strikers, so if I'm picked to start I'll be deemed a world-class striker as well," he says, cheerfully. "When [Lionel] Messi came in at Barcelona they had [Samuel] Eto'o, Ronaldinho, Ludovic Giuly. I'm not saying that's going to be me, but you can prove yourself against these guys, and I don't know how good I can be. The thing is that you learn from world-class players. The reason Didier scores so many free-kicks is because he works on them. Lampard scores the goals he does because he works on his shooting. JT [John Terry] is right-footed, but you can't tell because he's worked on his left foot so much, to the point that his left is as good if not better than his right. That's how they got to that level. They worked on their weaknesses and became the best they could possibly be. That's my plan, too."
I leave the Reebok feeling pretty certain he will achieve it.
Daniel Sturridge is mentoring for Disney XD’s Aim High, which offers fans the chance to take part in one-on-one mentorships. For more information visit www.disneyxd.co.uk/aimhighReuse content