It’s the age old excuse your girlfriend gives when you’ve waited all week for 5-7 minutes of awkwardly sweaty passion. It’s what you say to your eight-year-old son when he’s demanding a one-on-one kickabout in the back garden, first to 100 wins. It’s the line you give your mates when they request your presence at the local public house, but you’ve already decided upon a delicate evening of aromatic candles, ice cream and Love Actually – some alone time to recharge your manly batteries.
An irrefutable claim. As a politician (or a criminal) would say, ‘plausible deniability’. Have scientists even invented a machine that can tell how genuinely tired you are?
Roy Hodgson’s England budget doesn’t allow for such futuristic devices, and in the absence of Jeremy Kyle to run his ‘up to 96% accurate’ lie detector test, the Three Lions gaffer had no choice but to take Raheem Sterling’s word for it, when the Liverpool starlet ruled himself out of starting contention against Estonia with fatigue.
Music to the ears for critics of the Premier League’s monolithic power and it’s effects on our national team, such as Stan Collymore. The former Nottingham Forest and Liverpool star used his spot on TalkSport yesterday evening to press the conspiracy theory that Sterling’s sudden case of tiredness un-coincidentally coincided with fellow Liverpool attacker Lazar Markovic tearing a muscle during Serbia’s draw with Armenia.
The backdrop of Brendan Rodgers publicly criticising Hodgson after Daniel Sturridge picked up a thigh injury last month in an England training session doesn’t help, and neither does England’s world ranking of 18th.
Indeed, as the Three Lions press through one of their darkest periods, the same, thoughtless opinions on Sterling’s tiredness emerge; “Tired is working 100 hours a week in Asda. You’re 19 and playing the game you love. Tiredness shouldn’t come into it” laments Twitter personality and one-time Chelsea trainee Leon Knight. “Sterling should be ordered to ring the parents of an insomniac, and tell them his reasons for being tired,” argues @JonnyGabriel to his 3000+ followers. “Absolutely ridiculous Sterling is too tired to start, 45 mins vs San Marino, you have so much time to relax on international duty,” claims MOTD fashionista Robbie Savage.
One can only ponder, if England had just won the World Cup – or perhaps more realistically, surpassed the quarter finals – would common consensus be quite so unreasonable? If England’s talent pool hadn’t become so shallow in the last ten years, would the attention on a 19 year-old deciding he doesn’t feel right to play be as unnecessarily intense? Would we still be having these arguments about England players no longer caring, being ‘treated like complete babies’ to paraphrase Rio Ferdinand, and not showing enough pride?
No. Such superficialities or innocuous side stories, such as Sterling requesting not to start against the 81st-best national team in world football, only gather genuine attention during periods of despair.
And what precedent does this set for future England players? Sit out a game for a slightly ambiguous reason – perhaps feeling a twinge, perhaps feeling mentally jaded from a tough run of fixtures – and you’re public enemy No.1. Never mind that the alternative path could easily lead to long-term injuries or a dramatic slump in form, perhaps even resulting in later exclusion from the international scene.
Take the career of Michael Owen for example, one of the best goal-scorers of his generation and arguably the greatest England has ever produced. He’s one of just three English players to have won the coveted Ballon d’Or, and his Three Lions strike-rate stands at 40 goals in 89 appearances. He should be remembered as one of England’s all-time heroes, but injury, ending his international career in 2008 at just 28 years of age, has left his legacy shrouded in ambiguity.
The youngest goalscorer in Liverpool’s history, the youngest player to feature for England at a World Cup, and having made nearly 300 appearances for the Reds by the time he left for Real Madrid aged 25, there’s no question poor game-time management, combined with club and country’s huge dependency on the striker, did irreparable long-term damage to Owen and brought his time at top level to an abrupt end.
Never mind Wayne Rooney beating Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal record – if Liverpool and England hadn’t become so greedy over their talismanic striker, almost addicted to Owen’s incredible qualities, he would have easily breached 49 international goals years ago.
Perhaps that’s what Sterling rightly fears – simply put, his body and mind-set burning out when it should be reaching it’s footballing peak. One can’t dispute the 19 year-old possesses the potential to be at the heart of the Liverpool and England starting Xia for the next decade and yonder, providing he stays clear of long-term injury problems, so why risk it against Estonia? Why not take the pressure, both physically and mentally, off yourself for the afternoon?
After all, if England can’t beat Estonia without the help of a teenager who is yet to score his first international goal, they may as well hand Switzerland the chance to upset the odds at Euro 2016 now.
At the same time, demand for Sterling has dramatically increased over the last twelve months. Between May to October in 2013, he’d received just 615 minutes on the pitch. Between May to October this year, that figure has nearly trebled to 1,682 minutes. His 1,105 minutes so far this season is only surpassed in the England camp by Gary Cahill and Jack Wilshere. It’s not only a matter of game-time, it’s the intrinsic role Sterling now plays for club and country and the weight of expectation that comes with it, much like Michael Owen.
The intense scrutiny now placed on Sterling by many of English football’s talking heads is incredibly disappointing. He shouldn’t be viewed as part of the Premier League/national team debate. He shouldn’t be used as evidence to suggest England’s players have ‘gone soft’ since Terry Butcher went around with bloody rags dripping from his forehead.
He’s simply a teenager, already lauded with incredible responsibility for his age, preserving the right to rest for his own well-being. As Sterling responded on his Twitter account yesterday evening; “forgive me for being human.”