BY ANDREW BOULTON
Depending on who you talk to, Raheem Sterling is either a naïve puppet, an avaricious sell-sword or a plain old traitor.
It’s been several years since a player’s desire to leave a Premier League club has become so acrid. All departing players can expect to be booed on their return. Sterling can expect the bilious depths of a football fan’s considerable ire, nothing less.
But, however distasteful the whole affair has been, Sterling has perhaps been cast too lightly as the villain.
By any measurement of decency and professionalism (even by the Premier League’s own stunted morality) Sterling has not behaved well. ‘Phoning in sick’ for training is grubby and juvenile but not, I expect, uncommon.
His unauthorised interview with the BBC meanwhile smacked of the kind of mendacity people were quick to blame on the player’s agent, Aidy Ward. Let’s for a moment ignore the depressing reality that Premier League footballers are not only media-drilled into insipidity but effectively gagged and agree that, by airing his thoughts so clearly and publicly, Sterling chose the life of a transfer renegade.
But this is where the rancour swiftly overtakes anything resembling proportionality. Ex-Liverpool players are in the headlines every day decrying Sterling’s character, motives or, at best, his choice of representation. It’s not uncommon to find the views of two or three former Reds in any day’s sporting headlines.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this makes me feel sorry for Sterling, but I do struggle to match the reaction to the action.
Sterling tells us, if we choose to believe him, that he is not motivated by money. Instead, he has a thirst for trophies or, at the very least, the opportunity to compete meaningfully for them.
The question of money is an unsolvable debate. On the one hand, for a 20-year-old to value themselves higher than £100,000 a week, in any profession, will only ever be met with incredulity. But if we’re willing to credit Ward with a wiliness he may or may not possess, agreeing to a valuation that puts Sterling’s worth at around 65% of a semi-hobbled Daniel Sturridge does not seem entirely unreasonable either.
Others have argued that Sterling is unfinished and that the top money comes when the potential becomes proven. An admirable ideal, but ultimately a stance that puts Liverpool at odds with the market – in particular with the kind of clubs who will cheerfully abandon the hazy principle keeping young men grounded in exchange for the priceless commodity of home-grown, first team talent.
Even if we believe, quite reasonably, that Sterling has been lured by money I’m not sure it persuasively closes the case. Ultimately, Sterling has departed a club that has yo-yo’d from 7th to 3rd and back to 7th, shedding the world’s best centre forward and recruiting unevenly in the process. What’s more, the club he has exchanged for has two Premier League titles in the past four seasons and realistic, if as yet unfulfilled, ambitions in the Champions League.
We’re told that the relationship between Sterling and Brendan Rodgers was a factor in his seeking a move. Whether or not this relationships deteriorated on a personal level, how much should Sterling have trusted an important next step in his development to a manager who had few qualms about using him at wing back? At City even Sterling’s most vocal critics must concede he represents a better first team forward option than the fading Samir Nasri or the unimaginative Jesus Navas.
Seldom unspoken amongst all this is the fact that Liverpool, far from being weak and wounded, have struck an incredible deal. The Anfield club, far shrewder when selling than buying, held all the cards and played them patiently and persuasively. Now they once again find their pockets stuffed while, unlike the summer of 2014, the recruitment assignment ahead of them is infinitely less awkward. And yet somehow, amongst the hostility, this piece of laudable business is seen, strangely, as an unsatisfactory conclusion.
So what precisely has Sterling done wrong? Quite probably he’s guilty of greed, a not uncommon vice in their particular field. Without doubt he has himself, or at the behest of his agent, manufactured a transfer that has embarrassed his club and raised questions about his character. And even those journalists that have treated him generously over the past few months will have no choice but to pounce upon anything less than impeccable performance. Sterling will not merely be playing under the weight of a record fee, he’ll be playing under the considerable burden of his own boldly declared ambition.
But it’s also true that he is a 20-year-old professional footballer with a reasonable claim to being England’s most dangerous forward and amongst Europe’s most talented young players. He has been given the chance to play for a team that is virtually assured to compete for the league title and with growing hopes in the Champions League. What he has left behind is a club still striving to move up the tier that was once, long ago, indisputably where they belonged.
And perhaps this is where the distaste truly originates. Manchester City, loaded with the artifice of foreign wealth are still, however unjustly, an affront to those increasingly blurred ‘traditional’ values embedded so obstinately in clubs ‘with history’. And if you believe choosing City over Liverpool is the choice of effortless wealth over some indefinable honour, then of course Sterling will seem to have acted with nothing grander than rampant self-interest.
But if you choose to see the whole story, and accept that ambition can point people in many directions, than perhaps Raheem Sterling isn’t quite as awful as we’re told.