TOM HUDDLESTONE admits to having plenty of sympathy for Mario Balotelli over his controversial half-time shirt swap after revealing he was once put in the same position during a Champions League tie.
The Italian’s future at Liverpool is in doubt going into today’s Premier League clash against Hull City after the striker found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons again in midweek.
Balotelli, already under pressure after a disappointing start to the season, swapped shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe as the pair left the field at half-time with the Reds 3-0 down.
The move infuriated supporters and left many at Anfield speculating that Balotelli, who was substituted during the interval on Wednesday night, could be on his way out of Merseyside sooner rather than later.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has to decide whether to include the 24-year-old in his squad to face the Tigers and Huddlestone admits to empathising with the £16m summer arrival from AC Milan.
The Hull midfielder said: “If you have got the right bunch of lads around them, those sorts of characters can fit in and have a laugh. I am sure Balotelli does.
“It is just that everything around him just seems to be blown out of all proportion. Everyone just seems to jump on the bandwagon. I watched the game on Wednesday and you physically see Pepe ask him (for his shirt).
“To a fellow professional, Balotelli is not going to say, ‘No, because we are losing I am not going to swap shirts with you’. It puts him in a difficult position and I don’t know what people expect him to do.
“I felt for him the other day. It is not as if he sprinted after Pepe and asked for his shirt.
“I have been asked myself, to be fair. When I was at Spurs, we were 4-0 down at Inter Milan once. I was asked when I was coming down the tunnel (at half-time) by Maicon. I was only 23 at the time, so I wasn’t going to say ‘no’.
“So, I actually did swap shirts. I just made sure I hid it out of the sight of (then Spurs manager) Harry Redknapp and everyone else.”
Steve Bruce is another in the Hull camp who has sympathy for Balotelli at the end of a week that also saw the striker hit the back pages over an allegation of threatening behaviour against a woman taking photographs of his Ferrari.
The Hull chief is no stranger to managing maverick characters in his career, while he also shared a dressing room with Eric Cantona when captain of Manchester United.
At Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson famously made allowances for Cantona due to the unpredictable nature of the Frenchman, who arrived at the club with a reputation for walking out on clubs.
Bruce said: “From the outside looking in, it has been a difficult start for Balotelli, but you should always appreciate what you are going to get.
“You have got to understand that he is going to be different. You have to weigh that up to start with. Once you have brought him in, you have got to bear with him.
“It looks to me as though he is the easy target at the moment because we have seen foreign players swap shirts umpteen times.”
The maverick characters that Bruce has managed in his career include Amr Zaki at Wigan Athletic and Christophe Dugarry at Birmingham City.
The Tigers’ chief added: “Dugarry had the best ability in a player I have ever signed but he was a bit different.
“When they have got that maverick in them, you have to handle them differently. They are not the norm.
“You make that decision as a manager the minute you bring them in. How you manage them today is the biggest challenge we all face. The earning power of these young lads is quite remarkable so they all take a bit of managing.”
Bruce was still at Manchester United when Cantona attacked a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park in January, 1995, in an act that eventually saw the French striker banned for eight months.
Lee Sharpe revealed to The Yorkshire Post on the tenth anniversary of that infamous night that in the dressing room afterwards Ferguson merely told Cantona, ‘You can’t go round doing things like that, Eric’ before then slaughtering the rest of the team for playing badly.
Asked yesterday about how Ferguson handled Cantona in the aftermath of the kung-fu kick in south London, Bruce replied: “Sir Alex had a go at us for not grabbing hold of Cantona.
“Seriously, I think where Sir Alex was fortunate with Cantona was the dressing room loved him. We all embraced Eric, even if he was totally different.
“He was a great trainer. Yes, he was a maverick and off the wall but he enjoyed football so much. The dressing room took to him big style. That helps.”
Balotelli is, according to sources at Anfield, a good trainer. He has also not repeated the madcap antics of his Manchester City days, which included setting off fireworks in his own bathroom and showing off a t-shirt with ‘Why Always Me?’ after scoring at Old Trafford.
On the pitch, however, he has been a disappointment with his play lacking the intensity that Rodgers demands as part of the pressing game that took Liverpool so close to winning the title last season.
Asked if he felt Balotelli was worth persevering with as a Reds player, Bruce replied: “It is not for me to comment but, from the outside looking in, I don’t think he did that badly the other night (against Real Madrid).
“It is like most players, you want to get off to a good start. And, as a striker, that means scoring goals.
“That is what you are judged on. But because he is different, he is an easy target. He is not everyone’s cup of tea but there is no doubt it, he has got exceptional ability.
“If he plays against us, we are going to have to be at our best. I am sure he will come good with time.”