Raheem Sterling has found his voice and shown how players can set the agenda
There has never been an easier or more dangerous time for footballers to speak their mind.
One tweet is all it takes to invite a shower of criticism or support. What Raheem Sterling has achieved this season is to show how it is possible to take control of how you are perceived by being yourself.
Within the space of a few months he has gone from the ‘bad boy’ of English football to a potential winner of Sports Personality of the Year, from one crazy extreme to another.
Whether this transformation has been assisted by those around him or not – and I suspect this was more considered than an instant reaction to one single incident at Chelsea earlier this season – it is a lesson to every player wary of expressing feelings. This is the way to go.
“I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to be heard I will speak up,” Sterling wrote in that applauded Instagram post in January, emphasising his previous reluctance to raise his head above the parapet.
What has changed the public perception of Raheem is this honesty. It can be a fine line between being open and unprofessional – I know this from my own experiences which sometimes got me in trouble. I stand by my opinion there were things said to get Raheem out Liverpool which were deliberately provocative and crossed a line. In my view, they were agent games.
What we have seen recently is completely different which is why there is more support for him. People have come to understand his character, recognising he is a good kid trying to make the best of his career. This is the Raheem I know having been a team-mate when he broke into the Liverpool side.
Such speaking from the heart is rarer than it used to be - and with good reason.
Youngsters making their name are advised to tread carefully. They are given media training which can often involve saying as little as possible during an interview, so avoiding any contentious headlines, misinterpretation or misquoting.
If I was coming through the ranks today, I don't know how I would deal with modern pitfalls, resisting the urge to tweet a controversial post-match observation about a referee, an opponent or critical supporter telling me how poorly I performed. Offering an opinion on any subject is like lighting a bonfire, especially with social media being as vicious as it is.
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Players can sometimes feel they are in a no-win situation. You can be categorised as ‘outspoken’ if you react emotionally post-match, having your words debated on every broadcast channel – or in newspaper columns – to the extent you might ask yourself if it is worth the hassle.
Look at Eric Dier using Twitter to support a People's Vote on Brexit, a view he is perfectly entitled to whether you agree or not. He invited support from those who back him and criticism from those opposed to the idea.
“Eric Dier told to stick to football,” ran one headline.
Why would a newspaper, in which journalists are desperately chasing footballers and celebrities for interviews, criticise anyone for offering an opinion?
As supporters – and as someone who now works in the media – we must pause before jumping on any contentious remarks and ask ourselves what do we want from our players?
Do we want interesting perspectives, or boring, repetitive soundbites about ‘taking games as they come’ and ‘going again’ after every match?
Players fearing abuse and ridicule will steer clear of the press, which can do more harm than good when it comes to their reputation.
Some of the most well received Monday Night Football shows in recent years have been with those who rarely conducted interviews at the peak of their career, like Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole.
The responses were overwhelmingly positive as if viewers were surprised by their down-to-earth nature. Why? It is because they have constructed an opinion of those lads based on how they were misrepresented.
When I played, there were no PR agents offering support. I never discussed what I should or should not say with my agent.
My attitude was to answer questions with truth and the more experienced I was the better I became at knowing how and when to make my points.
I would prepare for interviews knowing what I wanted to get off my chest, recognising if a journalist was guiding me towards a particular angle. You could see the headlines in certain questions and respond accordingly, giving them what they wanted to reflect your opinion or telling them to move on to the next question. Sometimes the presentation was not how you wanted – that was tough to deal with - but you learned the more you did it. Without wishing to sound big-headed, I knew by the end of my career if a journalist sat down with me they would leave with a good interview and generally have a positive view of my character.
Others I played with took a different view, journalists were vetted before they were granted access, or in extreme cases the contents of interviews edited to give a manufactured impression. Official club sites or matchday programmes are still wary of publishing anything that might end up in a newspaper.
It was going that way before I retired and has become more controlled since. The consequence is the stripping out of many players’ personalities in the way they are presented to the general public, which is counter-productive.
One of my closest friends at Liverpool was Michael Owen, who this week gave an interview in which he said he felt he needed to write a new autobiography to address misconceptions about his career.
Unlike me, Michael was guided a lot by his agency when he achieved superstar status and I think he might agree a lot of that amounted to overprotection which did not show people enough of his character. If he could go back, perhaps he would have spoken more openly than he was urged to do at the time, so that people understood the pressures and career choices he faced when he was one of the most wanted strikers in world football.
What it all comes back to is that word honesty again. If I was asked to give a player advice about dealing with media – and I never have been – I would say that those who show who they really are and what they really think are the ones who are generally presented more favourably.
As England manager Gareth Southgate indicated prior to the World Cup that he felt the end of an era where players mixed and engaged more openly with journalists or supporters had not created a healthy relationship but had erected barriers which he tried to break down in Russia last summer.
It may be no coincidence that Southgate’s more proactive attitude is influencing members of his squad. As someone who was always willing to deal with the media – something which I believe has been invaluable in my post-playing career - I believe this is positive for the new generation.
The more we hear from the highest profile players, the more we understand about the journeys they are on and, naturally, the more we grow to like them – regardless of club rivalries.
Beyond the serious issue of the racism Raheem has experienced which he has forced into a more open debate, he is showing everyone how to use the platforms available to articulate thoughts and set the agenda.
Raheem may not only prove an inspiration for the youngsters seeking to follow him on the pitch. He may be changing things for the better when it comes to all those seeking to make their point off it, too.