So, it’s finally happened. Raheem Sterling has left the bright red of Merseyside for the light blue of Manchester. £49 million one way, one young English star of the future the other. But what is the greater significance? Was Sterling wrong to leave Liverpool? Why does £49 million sound so outrageous? And what exactly has he done wrong?
From the Liverpool perspective, Raheem Sterling represents another great player that they’ve failed to keep hold of. Six years ago, Liverpool challenged a Manchester United side driven by Cristiano Ronaldo and a top form Wayne Rooney. How times have changed. Losing players like Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano were a given, considering the stature of the clubs that took them. But Liverpool have since lost golden boy Fernando Torres, the amazing Luis Suarez, who they had to fight to keep, and now arguably their finest young Englishman. Torres was by then severely hampered by injuries, and well-documented to be taking painkilling injections which affected his already fragile body. Suarez was convinced to stay at Liverpool, but a third bite on Giorgio Chiellini made his position untenable. These were players that they expected to lose. Liverpool fans have a right to be aggrieved, but the man who should feel most betrayed is Brendan Rodgers.
When he was signed in the Benitez era, Sterling was already showing the pace and fancy footwork in his early teens that would befit his innate talent. But it was Rodgers who put his faith into him. Not many managers would trust an 18 year old with a first team place, particularly an English one. In the 2013-14 season, Sterling was beginning to show glimpses of his huge potential. A goal against City underlined his supreme confidence. Bolstered by this Hodgson put him straight into his World Cup team, where again he shone against Italy (I’m still celebrating that shot). The world was his oyster.
But then show us 2014-15. Without Suarez, Liverpool were obviously a much more toothless team, and the loss of Sturridge and Balotelli’s very unfortunate year-long attack of rigor mortis meant that Sterling was forced into a position at lone striker. He did not excel. Whilst his pace and trickery are almost finished articles, he doesn’t have the composure or the finishing skill, understandably, of a striker. Fatigued, he was unavailable for England in two ultimately meaningless games, and was granted a holiday to the Caribbean by Rodgers. Remember that. A few weeks later, he was videoed inhaling ‘hippy crack,’ which, while legal, reflects poorly on him and his club. Then came a long a protracted contract saga, a bizarre unsanctioned interview with the BBC and finally an acrimonious interview with his agent, Aidy Ward. Add this to a mystery illness that stopped him training with the rest of the team, Sterling eased his way to City.
For many, Sterling represents the ultimate betrayal. Here is a man whom Rodgers, and Liverpool, have turned into a player of wonderful potential. It’s hard to believe that at any club he would’ve been given this chance. But the way he has approached this season has been wrong. His unprofessional, petulant attitude, heavily influenced by Ward (who described Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher as a ‘knob’), means that City will constantly have to tread on eggshells around him. If he doesn’t stay consistent, as has been the case for almost a year now, it will be hard to see Pellegrini, or whoever replaces him, remaining patient in the face of the impatient owners. It will also be interesting to see if he sticks with Aidy Ward, recently fired by Saido Berahino. The best players in the world have the best agents. You wouldn’t see Ronaldo’s or Mourinho’s (‘haha he’s not a footballer he’s a manager’ you know what I meant) insulting another player so bombastically. Ward has advised Sterling poorly, and Sterling, still under 21, has followed it. Not to say that Sterling hasn’t made his own decisions.
From City’s point of view, Sterling is one for the future. Remember, £49 million is nothing to City, even less now that their FFP sanctions have been removed. Good young English players are at a premium, and have been for years. It’s easy to criticise how City use their academy, but the truth is that they have poured millions into it. Young players stagnate because it’s easier to sell a Spanish player’s shirts. Football is all business, and becomes ever more ruthless. While Sterling wasn’t exactly loyal to Liverpool, how many of us would leave our job for something better? Sterling in a homegrown player who fits a position that they need filled. £49 million is a lot of money, but even if he is a risk, they’ll soon make it back. Remember, even if he doesn’t fulfil his potential, he’s not even 21 yet, and City will get a lot of money from his sale.
Now let’s look at Sterling’s point of view. Raheem Sterling and I (claim to fame incoming) were brought up a few miles away from each other, in Brent in North London. He’s from a working-class, not exactly beautiful area where a lot of the value of your life is measured in the value of your clothes. He’s from an area where he and his friends were brought up during the economic crisis, which they barely understood but which affected them every day. He has one very young daughter, who he probably fears for. It’s not exactly a favela in Brazil, but being rich definitely takes the sting out of being poor. Why then stay at one football club, when there’s no guarantee of loyalty to you? Why make 100,000 a week, when 200,000 is on the table? If I worked with Martin Skrtel, I would be shocked that he was getting paid at all, let alone that he was out-earning me.
He may have seen Liverpool lose Luis Suarez, and for Rodgers to naively fritter away that transfer fee on poor players. He may have seen himself be pushed into an unfamiliar position, being criticised for when he missed a chance that he had no experience of training himself for. Remember, a player of Suarez’s undeniable quality lifted the whole squad. Lallana doesn’t seem like he could lift a tablecloth. Sterling has what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure, and unfortunately Aleksandr Kolarov. What if he misses it forever? What if Liverpool don’t get as close to the title as they did in that magical spring of 2014 for another decade? He doesn’t want to stagnate.
It’s not all as clear cut as it seems. Football is all about money, it literally always has been. But it’s also about legacy. Sterling didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond, but will now be tested more than ever at a club with lofty European ambitions. Whilst he’s virtually cemented an England place forever having played for Liverpool (I’m looking at you, Glen Johnson), he can now test himself every day with some of the best and brightest players in Europe. He will constantly be feeling the pressure of a manger who doesn’t know him and the crushing weight of that huge price tag. Maybe he’ll look back at his Liverpool career with fondness. Maybe he’ll look at it as a learning curve. But he will hope he doesn’t look back on it at the very best days of his career.