Casually reading The Guardian sports section on a bright Saturday morning, a certain column proved particularly evocative. Paul Wilson had written a piece titled “how many Premier League players are actually ‘world class’ “. It primarily consisted of rambling on about Hazard’s magic, Özil and Sánchez’s inconsistency, and lauding De Gea’s heroics, whilst constantly using the ‘world class’ definition as: a player who attracts interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona (and someone who has been consistent throughout 2/3 seasons). Wilson’s conclusion was that Hazard was trailblazing ahead with a definite yes, with Aguero, De Bruyne De Gea and Salah on his heels. For me 1 thing stood out as inaccurate. Hazard is in spectacular form without doubt, he mesmerises defenders, he links up play brilliantly and is clinical in front of goal. Unplayable at times. Yet, while I’m not disclaiming his “world class” label, I don’t believe that, for a man of his ability, he has been prolific enough. During his 6 year tenure at Chelsea, only once has he finished in the top 5 for goals or assists and only once has he won Player Of The Year. Yes, ‘just once’ appears harsh. But it isn’t for someone who all of a sudden is being likened to Messi and Ronaldo. One thinks of Sergio Aguero : averaging 21.6 goals each season in the past 5 years. Or Harry Kane : 27.5 season average at Spurs. These are truly remarkable personal records. However, in my opinion, one player has stood out over the past 4 seasons.
Raheem Sterling. The young boy who polarises fans, sparks debate, but always delivers. You simply can’t even begin to imagine what Sterling has been through. His father was shot dead in gang activity when Raheem was only 2. In search of a better, safer life, him and his family moved to London 3 years later. Honing his skills on the streets of London, Sterling graduated through the QPR academy until the age of 17 where he was signed by Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool. His official senior debut for the Merseyside giants came against Wigan athletic- still only 17. However, he is remembered at Anfield for SSS: Sterling, Sturridge, Suarez. This was the nickname handed to the deadly trio of the 13/14 nearly Liverpool men. At 19, Sterling was still a precocious talent, with much to learn, but much promise. He went on to be shortlisted for PFA Young Player Of The Year award that season and also won Liverpool’s Young Player Of The Year award.
A dire World Cup where England were publicly shamed would shatter many 19 year old’s confidence, but he ploughed on, and earned himself a £44m move to Man City after ,once again, being shortlisted for the PFA award and winning Liverpool’s. Contract disputes at Anfield would derive criticism from Liverpool legends such as Gerrard, Carragher and Souness. Sterling,the youngster who lit up Anfield, would be booed on his returns. Sterling, the mature 21 year old, resilient as ever, was unfazed. He entered the new chapter of his career with an open, positive mindset. Little did he know he was only taking his first steps into an ever turbulent career.
Unfazed? Maybe not, in retrospect. His first season at City brought lucrative rewards off the pitch, but not so much on. His bright start was followed by a torrid 2016. A groin injury in February would sideline him for 8 weeks, but post-convalescence- was still wasting away on the bench. He had lost his place in the starting line up. And a result, was further ridiculed. Social media was on the rise, and he became the butt of jokes. Particularly his bizarre running style. Comedy gave way to inevitable criticism as he fell into the “youngster distracted by money” stereotype. The English 2016 Euro debacle didn’t do wonders for his supposed all-time low self esteem. Although Sterling was frustrated rather than upset. He believed in his ability. And a managerial altercation gave him the perfect opportunity to turn a corner, to release that frustration. To rebuild his career. Guardiola took to Sterling right from the off. The speedy, raw talent needed nurturing – and few can nurture like Pep. He put complete faith in Sterling, starting him in all 4 of their August matches. It paid off- Sterling picked up Player Of The Month in August. Over the next season with Pep, Sterling worked relentlessly hard to improve his finishing and decision making. His endeavour reaped not only personal rewards, but for the team as well. Sterling’s 18 goals, often at crucial moments, were a vital factor of Man City’s record breaking season- but there would be another twist in the Sterling tale in 2018 summer. The World Cup. A World Cup where in the lead up, Sterling was in the papers for all the wrong reasons. A gun tattoo was spotted on his leg in training- to the horror of anti-gun protestors. Fans were divided. Victims of gun assaults were rightly outraged- but they did not know the story behind it. It was in memory of his father. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the tattoo was justified or not, but he was condemned once more. England, against the odds, powered through to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. Sterling was national hero. No, he was far from that in fact. Despite playing a pivotal in the Three Lions’ success, he was criticised again. For the simple reason that he wasn’t scoring. Football parochialism at it’s finest. Sterling, though, was too strong for the haters. He brushes them away.
The new season dawns and City sit on top with 23 out of 27 possible points. Sterling, still only 23, has 4 goals and is becoming a staple in a team full of world stars. Real Madrid are interested. World Class yet Paul? A friend and I watched England’s defeat of Spain together. After Sterling had rifled in his first of the night, I turn to my friend, “cracking finish.” He gapes at the TV for a few moment and replies, “a lucky bobble.”