From Public Enemy Number One to Player of the Year, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez has completed one of the most improbable rehabilitations in the recent history of the English game.
Just a year ago, the football world recoiled in horror after the Uruguayan sank his teeth into the forearm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during a game at Anfield, earning him a fine and a 10-game ban.
It came just over a year after he had been handed an eight-match suspension for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, and prompted speculation that he might never play for Liverpool again.
Twelve months on, he has been elected Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) after becoming the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in 1986-87 to score 30 league goals in a season.
While he stills plays with the same burning will to win — and is still prone to the occasional theatrical tumble — the 27-year-old’s on-pitch conduct is now befitting of his extraordinary ability.
“He is a brilliant talent. I think the supporters have seen him mature over the course of the last season,” says Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
“I think he was in a real low moment after that game (against Chelsea), but he has gone away and probably looked in the mirror and reflected on himself because he is not that type of guy.
“He is a sheer winner and that probably overspilled last year, but his development over the last year has been remarkable, both on and off the field, and Liverpool have benefited from that.”
That Suarez has reached the 30-goal mark is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that he missed the first five matches of the campaign as he completed his ban for biting Ivanovic.
It also came after a turbulent close season, which saw Suarez push for a move away from Liverpool and even accuse the club of breaking promises after they blocked a potential transfer to Arsenal.
Rodgers rebuked Suarez, briefly forcing him to train on his own, but Liverpool owner John W. Henry stood firm, refusing to cede his most prized asset to a major rival.
– Captaincy honour –
The club’s faith was rewarded emphatically, as the Uruguayan struck up a lethal understanding with strike partner Daniel Sturridge that has helped to fire Liverpool back into the Champions League.
It took Suarez only 36 minutes of his first league game, at Sunderland in September, to open his account for the campaign.
After a hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion and a brace against Fulham, he scored four times at home to Norwich City, opening his account with a stunning 45-yard lob.
They were the initial shots in a salvo of 10 goals in four games, which meant that the race for the Golden Boot was effectively over by Christmas.
In a development that would have been unthinkable months earlier, he signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract in December, having captained the team in a match against Tottenham Hotspur the previous week.
“It was weird, strange. I’d never imagined myself as Liverpool skipper,” Suarez told FourFourTwo magazine recently.
“After everything that had happened with me, to retain the support of the club, the coach and my team-mates showed me they were happy to forget and forgive.”
Booed at last year’s PFA Awards ceremony after finishing runner-up to Gareth Bale, Suarez now has the acceptance of his peers.
Ironically, Sunday’s ceremony was preceded by a game between Liverpool and Chelsea — the fixture that last season saw Suarez’s popularity plummet to previously uncharted depths.
Unhappily for the former Ajax striker, he was to finish on the losing team as Jose Mourinho’s side pulled off a 2-0 win that handed Manchester City the initiative in the Premier League title race.
The odds are against him again, but as he has demonstrated repeatedly over the past 12 months, Suarez does not give up easily.