In the aftermath of England’s dismal Euro 2016 campaign, very few emerged with any semblance of credibility or dignity. Roy Hodgson, architect of one of the nation’s dullest and most inept showings in living memory, resigned after the excruciating last-16 defeat to minnows Iceland. Joe Hart came under renewed and justified criticism after his second major error of the tournament played a large role in England’s exit. Harry Kane’s corner taking, aptly described as “special” by international colleague Jack Wilshere, really needs no further discussion.
But the recipient of much of the most scathing criticism was Raheem Sterling. Still only 22, Sterling has never been the most popular of footballers in this country for a variety of reasons. Since his debut for Liverpool aged 17 in 2012, he has developed a reputation as a tricky, fleet-footed winger but also, rightly or wrongly, as something of a “bad egg”. First came his mid-season holiday to Jamaica, which was supported by the club and manager Brendan Rodgers but drew the disapproval of supporters and ex-players alike. Then, a well-publicised contract dispute with Liverpool that led the youngster to give an unsanctioned and ill-advised interview with the BBC in which he protested that he was “not a money-grabbing 20-year-old” and insisted a hunger for trophies rather than wealth was behind his desire for a move.Embed from Getty Images
Shortly before his eventual £44m move to Manchester City, Sterling drew further ire from the Liverpool faithful when he asked to be left out of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the Far East and missed training after phoning in sick. Particularly unimpressed was Reds icon Steven Gerrard, who questioned the professionalism of his former team-mate and professed himself to be “very disappointed” with the conduct of Sterling and his representatives.
The winger’s heinous crimes have not been restricted to the footballing world, either. The Sun, always keen to take the moral high ground and with a history of responsible reporting where Liverpool matters are concerned, published front-page images of Sterling inhaling nitrous oxide shortly after the beginning of the contract debacle in April 2015. Not the most sensible of actions for a young footballer, certainly, but hardly as irresponsible or dangerous as the tabloid sensationalism and the term “hippy crack” might have you believe. Nor is Sterling alone in indulging himself in this manager – fellow youngsters Jack Grealish and Demarai Gray have also been caught on camera inhaling the gas. Overlooking this incident would be irresponsible in itself, and it is certainly the sort of thing from which you might hope young players will learn, but it is hardly the atrocity that a front-page spread might suggest.
So far, then, Sterling has lived the life of a typical young footballer. Impatience for success and the occasional misdemeanour are to be expected, especially when one so young is thrust into the spotlight so quickly. Now 22, a year younger than Harry Kane and two years senior to Dele Alli, Sterling is a regular fixture at City under new manager Pep Guardiola. He impressed alongside fellow youngsters Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus in their 4-0 demolition of West Ham recently, prompting Guardiola to declare the three “the future” of the club. Why, then, does Sterling still find himself the centre of fervent tabloid gossip about his private life? Embed from Getty Images
It seems that barely a week passes without an article appearing highlighting his snacking habits, the state of his car or the way he chooses to decorate his house. The Daily Star are the most prolific with regards to publishing such non-stories, but even heavyweights like the Sun and the Mail could not resist the opportunity to mock young Sterling’s shopping tastes – using a picture taken in 2014.
Ignoring the glaring vacuum of logic necessary to criticise a player for both buying expensive houses and shopping at Poundworld, it is hard to escape the feeling that there is something a little more sinister behind the incessant hysteria pumped out by these publications. As Daniel Harris noted in his excellent piece for the New Statesman, there is an undercurrent of racism beneath the criticism, the speculation and the jeers which still follow Sterling up and down the country, whether in the stands or in the media industry which is still largely devoid of minorities.
Raheem Sterling is not yet the finished article as a footballer, nor is he the paragon of virtue that we for some reason expect our young players to be. He is, however, an exceptional talent with a bright future ahead of him and, more importantly, a human being deserving of far more respect than he is currently afforded.