In April, Raheem Sterling exclusively told BBC Sport in an unexpected and somewhat unusual interview that he is not a “money-grabbing 20-year old”. This rebuttal came after confirming he has indeed turned down an enormous £100,000-a-week deal to remain at Liverpool Football Club for the foreseeable future. “It’s not about the money at all,” the England forward said. “It’s never been about money. I talk about winning trophies throughout my career. That’s all I talk about… I don’t want to be perceived as a money-grabbing 20-year-old,” said the player, who has two years left on a contract worth £35,000 a week.
Indeed, the irony of this assertion runs deeper than Raheem’s surname, in that, should he force an exit from the Merseyside club this summer, he will likely receive a higher (yes higher than 100k) weekly remuneration package at his next destination. Sterling and his representatives also insist he will not discuss a new contract with the Reds until the summer, no matter how big a deal he might be offered in the meantime. The past few months has seen Raheem Sterling’s agent, Aidy Ward, gradually gain more and more notoriety and come under fire for allegedly unsettling and poorly advising his prized 20-year-old client.
Conversely, whilst the tabloids have pinpointed Mr Ward as the “dominant evil” in the scenario, I genuinely believe there is more depth to a story like this than simply a matter of a bad agent: “I don’t talk about how many cars I’m going to drive, how many houses I’ve got. I just purely want to be the best I can be.” The above implies that Sterling (at 20 years old) no longer feels he can be “the best he can be” at Liverpool. Is he right?
Liverpool were on the brink of history last season – but “that” end of season collapse means their plight to become English champions continues. This most decorated club has failed for over two decades to achieve English supremacy. They are perennial also-rans when it comes to the Premier League to the effect that rivals (mostly fans of Manchester United & Chelsea) dispense derisory tweets, songs and Internet memes as freely and frequently as tap water. Liverpool’s last piece of silverware was won in 2012, a victory over Cardiff City FC on penalties to claim the League Cup.
North West Londoner Sterling joined Liverpool as a precocious teenage talent from the Queens Park Rangers academy in 2010. An instant success at youth level, he would become a Liverpool first-team regular in the following (2012/13) season. Ultimately, Raheem “the young boy” as his (current) manager Brendan Rodgers often refers to him; is now a young man. He is no longer star struck by the aura of Steven Gerrard and Anfield’s royal backdrop of trophy-laden cabinets. The experienced giants of the dressing room are no longer ogres in his eyes, but merely teammates. If anything, making the grade at Liverpool has paradoxically backfired for Liverpool – who have opened this talented player’s eyes to realms of achievement he could not previously have fathomed when starting out at QPR. Liverpool football culture and working closely with Brendan has afforded Raheem Sterling a winner’s mentality, s0 mediocrity in the shape of a League Cup win every so often and finishing 5th/6th place will seemingly not suffice.
Liverpool is a fantastic traditional football brand name; the most decorated club in England and established as part of European football aristocracy boasting a British record of 5 European Cups. But herein lies the problem; Liverpool resemble the UK’s grand old football museum – often pointing to the past to validate its reputable standing in the game, especially to young players who are in a hurry to achieve success and were not even born during their heyday. The epic Champions League victory over AC Milan is now exactly 10 years ago. Football moves on very quickly and no one could have imagined that a decade on from the miracle of Istanbul ; Liverpool supporters would be experiencing the same excruciating frustrations, finishing the league a staggering 25 points behind (Chelsea) the runaway Champions and failing to achieve a Champions League place. Another harsh reality is that former Liverpool greats such as Robbie Fowler, Steve Mcmanaman, Michael Owen (and now Steven Gerrard) have all exited the hallowed Shankly gates without collecting a Premier League winner’s medal. Even robust and highly organised regimes led first by Gerard Houllier and then Rafael Benitez, built on foundations like Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and Dietmar Hamann crumbled over 38 league matches.
Extraordinary talent and near-immaculate discipline does not guarantee success in top flight football. This is symptomatic of just how difficult and complex the English game is. More often than not, players achieving their wildest footballing dreams; is largely dependent on being at the right club at the right time. In the case of former LFC hotshot Michael Owen; Liverpool fans still sing “Where were you in Istanbul?” Therefore, how do you convince a gifted young, black, Londoner, reportedly missing the cosmopolitan capital, his family and friends – to remain in the North West for 4 or more years in a currently very mediocre team with a manager (Rodgers) whose own future is clearly hanging in the balance? How does one convince Sterling to stay and attempt to emulate the great John Barnes – one of the city’s greatest and most iconic players of all-time?
Like Sterling, Barnes played as an attacking winger, was born in Jamaica, cut his teeth at a London club (Watford) and promptly snapped up by English football royalty in the shape of Liverpool FC. Barnes himself has weighed in on the Sterling debate insisting Raheem is being “poorly advised” and should stay at the Club because, “he has achieved nothing so far”. One could forgive Sterling for brushing aside the opinion of the legendary John Barnes, who in the late 80s and early 90s, operated as a key member of a wonderful team. This was a team that coasted to the league title in his first season; playing some of the most breathtaking attacking football in Liverpool history. Though the similarities are obvious, Barnes was never in Sterling’s shoes, in that, he was managed by Liverpool’s greatest ever player-coach (Kenny Dalglish) and surrounded by exceptional teammates. Sterling is being managed by a new-wave young manager who has until now won nothing. Following the spectacular failure of Liverpool’s 2013/14 season his current teammates are a mish-mash of promising youngsters from the continent and overpriced 20-somethings who have flopped thus far.
In short, a strong case can be made that if Sterling is to leave this summer, it is Liverpool FC that has inadvertently influenced him to reach higher than the status quo. This is especially after missing out on success last season and seeing and witnessing the profligate use of the money received for the sale of Luis Suarez to FC Barcelona. Sterling is hungry and acutely aware of his talent and potential. This is making him impatient for success. It can be argued that this is not simply the impatience of youth but rather of ambition. He has been key member and leader at times in Liverpool’s dismal 2014/15 campaign, often switching roles to help the side and frequently resembling the only bright spark (along with Brazilian Philippe Coutinho) in an otherwise dull team. It would appear Sterling has realised this very early in his career and does not want to look back with regret.
Eden Hazard and Oscar, two players with a similar playing style to Sterling have both picked up their first League and Cup winners’ medals at Chelsea aged 24 and 23 respectively. This should point to Sterling’s impatience as unfounded and naïve. The two above players have clearly developed in age and performance to merit such rewards, whereas Sterling is still considerably ‘raw’ lacking a powerful shot, killer instinct/composure in front of goal and wise decision making when picking out teammates. He is not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination. He is, however, a young man with an acute understanding of his stock value and ability. He also realises that time is a very serious commodity in football and appears to want to maximise each year he is playing at the very highest level by challenging for top honours now!
Liverpool has become a brilliant incubator for young global footballing talent. Brendan Rodgers has received many plaudits for embodying a new modern dynamic type of football coach. His philosophy is the development of young precocious talent to become tactically and technically astute as quickly as possible. Rodgers has even gone on record about racial stereotypes amongst the football community – bemoaning the lazy attitude of usually white coaches who simply deploy black youth players based on their speed and strength attributes; neglecting to develop other facets of their game. He has indeed taken great time and care with Raheem Sterling, seeing in him “more than just a speedy black winger”, but an intelligent young man capable of adapting to various football systems and positions of play. Raheem Sterling does not “owe anything to anyone”, this is his career and he is entitled to make decisions about his future no matter how painful it is for those associated with Liverpool. On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers and the backroom staff that afforded him the platform, probably feel they deserve at least one more year out of Sterling, following the catastrophic losses this term of Luis Suarez (transfer) and Daniel Sturridge (injury).
Impatience can be both a positive and negative in football; but when you’re only 20 years old and a key member of the playing staff at one of football’s great dynasties…perhaps it is necessary to put things into perspective. Liverpool will receive a payment if and when he is sold at the end of his contract as the buying club is required to pay a training fee for any player under 23. This could be anywhere between £10-15m. Liverpool hold all the cards and Sterling is effectively losing £65k every week he doesn’t sign his new contract. So if Liverpool convince him to stay until at least next summer, he loses nearly £3.5m in wages; If Liverpool convince him to see out his contract that will be nearly £7m plus bonuses Sterling loses out on. In that respect, Liverpool will end up saving £7m in wages and will receive a fee of £10-15m, so in all pocketing £20m+ if nothing changes.
The issue here is double-sided but clearly one of impatience; the impatience of a bright young starlet to succeed at the very highest level of his profession – or the impatience of a naïve young man who is being cynically advised by a man who will receive a sizeable payday should he exit Anfield Road. From the ownership debacle of Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillet, to the reluctant offloading of Luis Suarez last summer…
Raheem Sterling; one of the most exciting and fascinatingly gifted young, English footballers of his generation is about to be Liverpool football club’s summer dilemma of 2015.