Of course, Liverpool have hardly been left financially embarrassed by the England winger’s record-breaking move. In the space of five years, they’ve turned a £600k signing into a £49million departure, all the more impressively securing a historic fee – Sterling now being the most expensive England international of all time – for a player who a) didn’t want to play for them anymore b) had publicly refused to sign a new contract and c) is still yet to make a centenary of Premier League appearances. From the off, they insisted the 20-year-old would cost £50million and after a month of negotiations settled for only £1million less. Clearly the club know how to do business.
Yet, the deal in itself makes a powerful statement regarding where the Anfield outfit now lay in world football’s gigantic pecking order.
Even the most militant of Reds supporters would admit the club isn’t the dominant force it once was. They’ve won two major trophies in the last decade, qualified for the Champions League just once in six seasons and haven’t lifted a league title since 1990. It’s impossible to ignore the facts.
Likewise, Sterling is by no means the first player Liverpool have been forced to surrender to a top European club. One could even argue that trend dates all the way back to Steve McManaman, who left Merseyside for Real Madrid in 1999. If free transfers don’t count, then it’s Michael Owen’s £8million move to the Bernabeu five years later that was the true turning point.
Since then, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez have all departed for monolithic sums (they’re all in Liverpool’s top five record transfer fees received) and gone on to claim Champions League titles for their next clubs. The only true world-class entity Liverpool managed to retain throughout that period was legendary skipper Steven Gerrard, an anomalous figure of loyalty, and even he was once a car ride away from joining Chelsea.
But the England international’s departure is easily the most telling yet. All of the above were well-established internationals before arriving at Anfield; all – with the exception of Mascherano on 94 – made over 100 Premier League appearances for Liverpool; all stayed on Merseyside long enough to win silverware; and all left after it had become patently obvious they should be competing at the highest level of the game – specifically, the latter stages of the Champions League on an annual basis – upon reaching the peaks of their footballing powers.
Sterling, on the other hand, has left the Reds after just two and a half campaigns in the first team, with not an accolade to his name, barring Europe’s Golden Boy award for 2014. No doubt, the England international possesses more than enough potential to eventually justify his £49million transfer fee, but the heartbreaking truth is that Liverpool were forced to sell an academy product (albeit, drafted in from QPR in 2010) before getting anywhere close to witnessing the fullest extremities of his talent.
At least throughout the Premier League era, he’s the first player Liverpool have involuntarily parted with due to his potential rather than proven ability. Furthermore, this isn’t a Real Madrid, a Barcelona or even a Chelsea whisking Sterling away. This is Manchester City; a club at the other end of the M6 who, despite winning two Premier League titles in the last four years, still aren’t regarded as irrefusable like the El Clasico duo, Bayern Munich or Manchester United.
Many have succumbed to the narrative of Sterling being misguided by his agent, disloyal to Liverpool and driven by a lust for an enormous salary, making his Etihad move somewhat inevitable. To varying degrees that may be true, but the Reds have some questions to answer themselves. Particularly, why are the ninth richest club in the world continually forced to sell their best players? And how low has their status become that even the heads of 20-year-olds fresh from the academy are getting turned by clubs on their doorstep?
Sterling may well be an ungrateful by-product of football’s modern age, but we won’t be returning to the apparently more loyal days of the 20th century any time soon. No doubt, the England winger’s departure has set a troubling precedent; if the status quo remains to the same, he won’t be the first prodigious youngster to swap Liverpool for a more successful club.