‘Acne’ and ‘Call Of Duty stats’ are two of the biggest concerns in the typical existence of a 17-year-old boy, but not for Raheem Sterling, who last night had to wrestle with the responsibility of representing his country. Although the majestic Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show, Sterling attracted the full, unfiltered intensity of the media spotlight, which is unlikely to relent for the foreseeable future.
As a result of securing his first international cap, Sterling will be unable to prevent his status shifting from ‘aspiring youngster’ to the ‘future of English football’. After such a remarkable start to his professional career, at one of the most demanding clubs in the country, there is suddenly an expectation to sustain his high standard of performances.
Liverpool are no longer blessed with a squad that is both deep in numbers and quality, which has perhaps forced Brendan Rodgers to include Sterling in his starting XI on a surprisingly regular basis. Alongside Sterling, the likes of Suso, Jonjo Shelvey and Andre Wisdom have found themselves prominent members of the first-team squad.
While many will commend Rodgers for his faith in adolescent talent, there is still a real risk that such an enforced way of thinking will be detrimental to Liverpool’s fortunes on the pitch and the mentality of such inexperienced players off it.
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It’s difficult to comprehend the fact that Sterling is deemed good enough to share a stage with Steven Gerrard and yet he cannot legally purchase cigarettes or alcohol, not that he should entertain either idea. The recent footage showcasing Sterling being escorted from a Merseyside nightclub perhaps highlights how he’s been thrust into a world where he doesn’t belong yet.
Sterling does however look completely at home on the football pitch and seems to thrive, where others have stuttered, under the watchful gaze of the Anfield faithful. His outstanding debut against Manchester City was swiftly followed by the winning goal at home to Reading, meaning Sterling is now the second youngest goalscorer in Liverpool’s illustrious history.
Only ‘disgraced’ legend Michael Owen found the net sooner – by a mere 173 days – but this startling comparison is perhaps where the fear for Sterling’s development has emerged. The term ‘burnout’ might be a common cliché but it’s a very real possibility, especially when you consider Owen peaked at World Cup ’98 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. Fellow young starlet Jack Wilshere has just returned from his own lengthy injury setback, with a nation anxiously waiting to find out whether he can ever reach his former heights.
Sterling finds himself at a fork in the road, his foray into the England fold could be the motivation needed to push on or it could inflate his ego to such an extent he spends the rest of his days with his head in the clouds. A quick glance at the rest of the youngest goalscorers in Premier League reveals the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas, but it also features James Vaughan and Federico Macheda, who have struggled to realise their full potential.
Should you delve into Sterling’s childhood you’re likely to find the familiar narrative of a ‘rags to riches’ fairytale, which is perhaps what makes this teenager so compelling. His former teacher, Chris Beschi, revealed how he saw his former pupil teetering on the brink of both greatness and tragedy.
“I did say to him that if you carry on the way you’re going, by the time you’re 17 you’ll either be in prison or playing for England.” (BBC)
Thankfully, this looks like a story destined for a happy ending and while the perils of public exposure are still apparent, there’s something different about Raheem Sterling.
When Lionel Messi or Falcao talk about their natural understanding and ability to read the game, I find myself picturing the vibrant runs and decision making of Sterling. The Liverpool coaching staff have hailed him as ‘one of the most tactically aware young players at the club’, with his ‘youthful exuberance’ often used to inaccurately describe that he’s two or three seconds ahead of everyone else.
His captain Steven Gerrard claims he always knew Sterling was destined for the top but with players so “young and small and that size sometimes you need to take a little bit extra care.” Rodgers agrees that his rare talent must be nurtured carefully but I cannot escape the prospect of a nation mimicking Lennie from ‘Of Mice and Men’, inadvertently crushing him through repeated heavy petting.
The best thing about Sterling is that he plays with a smile on his face, eager to impress and relish every second he gets to showcase his skills. The fans have embraced him with open arms, desperate to cling onto the positives from another topsy-turvy start to the season. I just hope the confidence doesn’t crumble away like so many of the young England players that surround him on Merseyside.
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