Raheem Sterling’s chance to show Liverpool he made right move
English attacker will no doubt face the fury of travelling fans on Saturday at the Etihad
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling will face Liverpool for the first time sinc ehe left in the summer. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Days after joining Liverpool in 2010, a diminutive 15-year-old was welcomed to Merseyside with an eye-watering foul from an Everton defender in the under-18s derby. Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s then ambassador, and Frank McParland, the academy director behind the new arrival’s transfer, feared the worst on the sidelines at Finch Farm. That was until the boy rose to his feet, smiled at his assailant and took retribution at the earliest opportunity. Liverpool knew then not to underestimate Raheem Sterling.
Doubts surrounded Sterling again this summer when he scorned the club and manager that moulded him into a Premier League fixture to become the most expensive English footballer of all time at Manchester City. A €63m fee rising to €70m for a 20-year-old with one encouraging, one exhilarating and one mediocre season behind him suggested City had been intoxicated by the relaxing of Uefa’s financial fair play rules.
Liverpool’s profit on an initial €855,000 purchase who went on to play 123 games and score 29 goals cushioned the loss, even accounting for a 20 per cent sell-on fee to his previous club, Queens Park Rangers. As Jamie Carragher tweeted at the time: “I wish LFC bought players as well as they sold them.” Four months on, Carragher’s sentiment holds true on both counts, although it a measure of Sterling’s impact at the Etihad Stadium that his fee is not the preoccupation it might have been. As on his debut for Liverpool Under-18s, he has responded forcefully once more.
Top of the league, six goals in sky blue and settled into Manuel Pellegrini’s formidable attack, the England international faces his former club on Saturday for the first time since his acrimonious departure content with his choice. “I’m not trying to say I proved anyone wrong,” Sterling said on England duty last week. “It’s just that I thought at the time it was right for me and my heart was saying that is what I should do. That is what I have done and I have no regrets.”
Insults will flow from the away section at the Etihad but may not leave a lasting sting. Although it will require some career to justify City’s investment, Sterling’s belief that his development and prospects of silverware would be better served along the M62 are being vindicated. Liverpool’s decision to sack Brendan Rodgers after 11 games of the season may also have confirmed the opinion of the winger with the Wembley tattoo.
A first senior hat-trick when handed a central role for the 5-1 defeat of Bournemouth and a devastating display at Sevilla in the Champions League rank among Sterling’s initial highlights. But it is how quickly and intuitively he has adapted to City’s style of play, and the league leaders to his pace and runs in behind, that has enabled the transfer to exceed expectations. Arguably on all sides.
The size of the fee was unlikely to burden a player who has faced serious pressures since early childhood and Sterling appears revitalised compared with his final months at Anfield. He has credited an upturn in form to training alongside players of the calibre of Vincent Kompany, Sergio Ag?ero, Joe Hart and David Silva. No slight on Liverpool might have been intended but the inference he has moved on to better things was clear.
Sterling was genuinely saddened when he discovered Steven Gerrard would be the next big name to leave Liverpool after Luis Suarez. “You really want to be working with world class players day in and day out,” he said in April. His then employers were aggrieved by how Sterling and his agent, Aidy Ward, pushed for the exit but had no convincing counterargument on that score. Their summer outlay of over €114m on seven new players was not exactly a convincing statement of intent considering the €63m banked for Sterling.
The lament over losing Gerrard and Suarez came in a controversial BBC interview that Sterling conducted to rebut allegations of “money-grabbing” only to confirm he had rejected €142,000 a week to extend his Liverpool contract. The PR move backfired but came six months after the club opened contract negotiations with a lower offer, fuelling a divisive standoff with Sterling’s agent at the heart. Ward’s client now earns around €285,000 a week at a club pursuing the Premier League title and qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League with two games to spare. Job done. Controversially and at a cost to the player’s reputation but, from Ward’s point of view, job done all the same.
The greed headlines overshadowed Sterling’s frequent assertions in the interview that his career would be defined by trophies and his frank admission that the contract saga had got to him. “It is a bit too much, keeps getting brought up and not making me think the best I can,” he said. “It all adds up.”
Certainly his form at Liverpool waned, shaping the argument City had paid an exorbitant sum, although hindsight suggests it was harsh to single out a 20-year-old for losing his way when his team and manager had done so too. The contract dispute, the decision to halt negotiations (relaid in person by Sterling to Rodgers), the interview and leaks over financial disagreements, however, left a toxic impression on his former supporters.
“Usually ex-Liverpool players receive a good reception but I don’t think Sterling will, certainly not back at Anfield,” says Jennifer Brown, an Anfield season-ticket holder. “The problem was the way he went about getting the move. I always thought the hype around him was unjustified and he believed he was a much better player than he showed at Liverpool. He was good at taking his man on but his final ball and his finishing were poor. He often bottled it in front of goal. He was talking about winning 100 caps for England last week but he’s been pushed too far, too young and could be another young player that English football runs into the ground.”
Suarez’s departure damaged Liverpool to a far greater extent than Sterling’s, though Jurgen Klopp could desperately do with that pace up front, yet only the latter would be greeted with disdain by the Kop. The symbolism of Sterling’s transfer perhaps adds to the resentment. A Uruguay international leaving Liverpool for Barcelona, home of his wife’s family, appears a natural step, however hard to accept at the time. A young England international leaving Liverpool for City demonstrates the changing Premier League order, delivering a blow to Anfield’s self-esteem on the way out.
Brown contests: “Suarez genuinely was a top-class player and you knew that one day, with his family background and how he was vilified in this country, he’d end up at Barcelona or Real Madrid. He had more reason to go. None of that applies to Sterling, who was well supported by Liverpool when he had problems off the pitch and showed no loyalty in return. Suarez was a world-class player, Sterling thinks he is.
“I’m surprised by how well he’s done at City. I thought they’d signed him for the future and that he’d be on the bench a lot this season but he’s surrounded by better players who give him the support and the passes he didn’t receive last season at Liverpool.
“We didn’t do too badly getting €70m for him but, again, it’s how we used the money that’s the issue. We got enough for him, we never lost out on the deal and we move on. It’s a chance for the other players we have coming through to make their mark. Once Saturday is out of the way, or more likely his first appearance back at Anfield is out of the way, he’ll just be someone who used to play for Liverpool.”