In 2002 Wayne Rooney scored for the club he’d supported all his life and unveiled a t-shirt that read ‘Once a blue, always a blue’. A fiercely proud Merseysider and Evertonian he was living the dream; a local hero on his way to superstardom.
Two years later he joined Manchester United for a record fee between two British clubs and despite Everton’s chairman crying on the phone to his mum saying ‘They have taken our boy’ and widespread anger from one half of the city for the perceived betrayal the transfer was uniformly celebrated in the media. It was a natural progression and why wouldn’t an ambitious young English talent want to showcase his talents in the Champions League for a club that regularly challenged for titles? You don’t turn down Man United, so they used to say.
His first season at Old Trafford saw ‘Roo-mania’ break out across the newspapers and television with journalists and commentators so effusive towards the shy youngster you hoped he took out restraining orders on some for his own safety – yes I’m looking at you Tyler and Tyldesley.
He was England’s Great White Hope and Sky’s Golden Boy and that blind championing has persisted throughout his career. Such has been the unprecedented scale of this decade-long hyperbole it led directly to the bizarre situation that significantly contributed to England’s undoing at the Euros. A player coming off the back of a decidedly mixed season squeezed into the first team at the cost of balance and logic, playing poorly in an unfamiliar role and then – naturally – given a hundred free passes for a hundred errant ones.
In July 2015 Raheem Sterling moved from Liverpool to Manchester City for a record fee between two British clubs. Five years earlier he had been poached by Liverpool from QPR’s academy for half a million pounds after moving to Wembley aged seven from Jamaica. Save for the fact that one player had declared lifelong allegiance to his hometown club and the other hadn’t – why would he? It wasn’t his hometown club – the two transfers at this point in time are saliently similar. Here were two prodigiously gifted English youngsters making an ambitious switch from a Merseyside club to a Manchester club who were a permanent fixture in the Champions league and regularly challenged for titles. From this juncture on however the narrative contrasts to a quite startling extent.
Former Liverpool legends lined up en masse to wail ‘They have taken our boy’ while there was widespread anger from one half of the city for the perceived betrayal. So far, so deju vu. Only this time there was no celebratory approval from the media to drown out the criticism, instead biblical condemnation and disgust. An inflated figure of £50m was attached to his name to the point where it became a damning prefix.
For both players scandal accompanied the timeline of their transfers. “£50M? You’re havin’ a laughing gas’ screamed the Sun after Sterling was filmed taking ‘hippy crack’ the legal high that was becoming commonplace among Premier League footballers. The drop head beneath the headline also makes clear this is a ‘storm’. “I don’t fancy yours much Wayne” winked the same paper when Rooney admitted to paying for sex with a 48-year-old grandmother two weeks after joining United. That first name familiarity is pertinent. He is one of us. The erroneous price-tag put in place of Sterling’s name meanwhile is meant to distance reader from player.
There are numerous examples of how the treatment of one young English talent contrasts greatly to another ten years on but perhaps the strangest is regards to their respective families. The tabloids’ swift anointment of ‘Wazza’ as the Three Lion’s prince led to his wife Colleen becoming a prominent WAG and securing a lucrative career as, well, Wayne Rooney’s wife. The birth of his first born Kai was given a front page splash of such commemorative glee it was akin to a royal arrival. Sterling too is a father, his offspring from a previous relationship often included in hatchet job reporting to denote something unseemly and irresponsible.
This week Raheem Sterling flew back from France and bought his mother a house. While his team mates departed for far-off beaches and cocktails he bought his mother a house. A ‘friend’ Snapchatted a photograph of a swanky sink in a bathroom and at a time when Britain is in both financial and political meltdown the likes of which we have not known in generations – when we have voted to leave Europe, the Prime Minister has resigned, our second major party is collapsing from within, and even on an unrelated matter our national football coach has walked – the good old paper-of-the-people Sun chose to run with their already infamous front page. Of a sink. I have to write that out again because it still amazes. Of a sink. The headline roared ‘Obscene Raheem’ and he was called an ‘idiot’ for good measure.
So overt was their intention – and so tenuous was their execution – that it appears only to have finally stemmed a year-long tidal wave of negativity that has seen a 20 year old (now 21) booed at every away ground and nailed to the cross as the epitome of all that is wrong with modern day football. Simply from transferring from one club to another.
Enough with the witch-hunt the reasonable majority are now demanding. Well, quite.
But how did it come to this? How did such levels of nationwide vitriol emerge that saw one of England’s most promising talents be bullied out of his confidence and spirit only to then be mercilessly lambasted for looking shell-shocked at a major tournament? Remember that ‘Just Giving’ campaign that attempted to fund his return from France after one poor showing? A campaign incidentally that Sterling himself saw. If you were involved with that and you’re reading this then you sir are an idiot. And your actions were obscene.
One of the reasons – to my mind – for the most vicious, unrelenting and underserving victimisations of a footballer I have ever bore witness to is immensely unedifying but no less worthy of mention. For we only need look at the chief under-performers at this tournament and cringe at the excuses that have excused them. Sir Harold Kane of Englandshire was mentally drained following an arduous season. Jack Wilshere was unfit, while Rooney was struggling with an unfamiliar role and was out of form. Joe Hart apologised so that’s alright.
Sterling wasn’t afforded any such allowances possibly due to unacknowledged guilt from the fans who knew deep down the main reason he was hesitant and shot-shy was, well, them. Instead he was singled out and hung out to dry. Worse, he was a kid turning up to an exam with a pencil snapped in two by his tormentors who was then marked down for having untidy handwriting.
There is something that separates Sterling from the three names above. It’s something that really, really shouldn’t matter in today’s age but perhaps in this instance it does.
In 2002 Wayne ‘Wazza’ Rooney was England’s Great White Hope. Raheem Sterling was never going to be that.