It is a little under two years since Raheem Sterling made the move which, perhaps more than any other, has come to define him. It wasn’t a drop of the shoulder, or a sprint past a full-back, or a shot at goal, but instead an interview. That interview is the reason why the winger will once again be the subject of abuse from the away end when Manchester City host Liverpool on Sunday.
“I don’t want to be perceived as a money-grabbing 20-year-old” was the standout line of Sterling’s chat with the BBC on 1 April 2015 as he sought to address criticism regarding his decision to turn down Liverpool’s offer of a £100,000-a-week contract. It was April Fools’ Day but Sterling was fooling no one, certainly not as far as those in the red half of Merseyside were concerned. Instead they saw the interview – one which was said to have left the Liverpool hierarchy “aghast” – as a blatant attempt by Sterling and his agent, Aidy Ward, to engineer a move from the club where he had been since the age of 14 and developed into one of the most exciting talents in English football.
Sterling did leave Liverpool shortly after, joining City for £49m. There have been four matches against his former club since – three Premier League defeats and a League Cup final victory – and in each Sterling has heard loud and clear what those who once adored him think of him now. There will be more of the same at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, but as the abuse comes his way Sterling may for the first time reflect with absolute certainty that he made the right decision moving to Manchester, that the acrimony has been worth it and his insistence that his decision to leave Liverpool was based on career development rather than cash has been vindicated.
Some would argue that point was made on the day – 14 July 2015 – Sterling moved from a club that could no longer consider itself a regular Champions League participant to one that is, and despite ongoing stutters in the competition, has the financial muscle to win it in the near future. Going to City also bolstered the player’s chances of winning the Premier League and with that cup victory over Jürgen Klopp’s side at Wembley last February, the 22-year-old, who grew up in the shadow of the national stadium, now also has a medal to his name.
But Sterling’s first season at City was something of a personal ordeal, characterised by inconsistent displays and a groin injury, sustained exactly 12 months ago, that saw him lose his place in Manuel Pellegrini’s starting side. But a change of manager has brought a change in fortunes, with the player’s form improving to such an extent that he has arguably been City’s most consistent performer this season.
Sterling has made 23 Premier League starts (the joint-highest at City), scoring six goals (the second-highest behind Sergio Agüero) and providing five assists (the joint second-highest, alongside David Silva). There have been a further 12 appearances and three goals in the Champions League and FA Cup, and although it can be suggested other players within Pep Guardiola’s squad have shone brighter than Sterling, most notably Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus, none have made a more rounded impact.
The football writer and City supporter Stephen Tudor puts Sterling’s improvements “entirely down to Pep Guardiola’s alchemy”, and there is no doubt the manager deserves credit for the manner in which he has nurtured the player since taking control at the Etihad.
Indeed the process began before then, with Guardiola calling Sterling while the player was in France as part of England’s Euro 2016 squad. The youngster was struggling, his club form seeping into his international displays, and as criticism came his way from supporters as well as on social media, Sterling could have crumbled. Instead he was boosted by praise from one of football’s most revered figures. It was the ultimate, out-of-the-blue pep talk.
“As long as you work for me, I’ll fight for you,” Guardiola told Sterling, and the player’s response has been emphatic. He has not only worked but provided City with thrust, incisiveness and speed from the right-hand side of their attack. The manager has also encouraged him to express himself, something that was not the case under Pellegrini, whose insistence on two-touch football and keeping dribbling to a minimum locked a player of wonderfully natural wing-play into a tactical straightjacket.
“I have more freedom to express myself [under Guardiola],” Sterling said recently. “I have the authority to be myself and create chances.” And he was at it again during City’s 3-1 defeat at Monaco in midweek, cutting inside Benjamin Mendy and hitting the shot that led to Sané’s 71st-minute goal and a moment of brief hope for the visitors to Stade Louis II.
This has not been a wholly uplifting season for Sterling, however. Despite having scored as many league goals as he did throughout last season, his finishing remains weak, with figures from Opta showing a shot-conversion rate of 12.24%. Then there has also been the ongoing abuse, seen more recently during City’s FA Cup quarter-final victory at Middlesbrough when boos came his way from some home supporters.
Sterling has become the poster boy of the perceived ‘greed over glory’ culture in English football, a perception ignited by his BBC interview and fuelled by over-the-top media coverage, the high-water mark of which was the tabloid newspaper story last summer that criticised him for showing off a “crystal-encrusted bathroom sink” on social media. Buried in the frothy-mouthed telling was that the sink was in a house Sterling had recently purchased for his mother, Nadine.
“Sterling’s strength of character has allowed him to come through a period of ridiculous vilification,” says the City-supporting author Simon Curtis. From those who truly know Sterling comes the firm sense that he is far from being a bling-obsessed waster. As Frank McParland, Liverpool’s then academy director, said shortly after the then 17-year-old received his first England call-up in September 2012: “He’s a really nice boy and when he’s on the pitch he has a real determination to push himself.”
Sterling’s next opportunity to do so comes on Sunday. He has yet to make a telling impact against his former club, with the player all but marked out of proceedings by James Milner when the sides met at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. But with City and Liverpool separated by one point and one place as they chase Champions League qualification, Sterling must feel this is the ideal time for him to wound those he knows so well.
He has the talent, form and opportunity to make it clear, once and for all, that he was right to go from red to blue.