Why English football must handle Raheem Sterling with care

Raheem Sterling, Liverpool

The England national team may not have had too much to shout about within recent months, but in the emergence of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, they certainly have a new talent of which to bring in some much needed optimism looking forward.

The 17-year-old winger has been one of the real success stories of Liverpool’s somewhat turbulent start to life under Brendan Rodgers, featuring in all but one of their nine Premier League games so far this season. Such a start has led to the inevitable calls for an England call up and Sterling subsequently featured as an unused substitute in the recent 1-1 draw with Ukraine.

Sterling, who is also eligible to play for his country of birth, Jamaica, is currently plying his trade in the England U21s. Yet despite making such unprecedented strides in his young career in recent months, that’s exactly where he should stay for the moment, too.

Not because Sterling doesn’t have the necessary talent or skillset to prosper in Roy Hodgson’s England set-up. But at the age of 17 and after such a promising start for his club, now simply isn’t the time to throw him into what is quickly becoming a bruising crusade of World Cup qualification.

The argument is of course, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Think Michael Owen scoring that goal against Argentina at France 98 or Wayne Rooney making his debut aged only 17. They were both prodigious talents who catalyzed their national side at such young ages.

But making your international debut at such a young age isn’t necessarily a banker for a long and fruitful international career. The likes of Jermaine Jenas, Micah Richards, Phil Neville and Aaron Lennon all made their England debuts as teenagers; yet all four have gone on to enjoy mixed fortunes in an England shirt. Of course, it’s difficult to compare Sterling with other talents making their debuts in differing England set-ups.

Call it the view of a pessimist, but although Sterling may well turn in a scintillating performance and net a goal on his debut, it feels at this stage in his career, the capacity is there to do as much harm as good.

The safe money is still with Roy Hodgson’s side topping Group H, but it’s not going to happen without a couple of really quite focused and professional performances. England currently lead their group, but with second placed Montenegro’s game in hand against San Marino at home, they will in all likeliness find themselves two points behind next month. With third placed Poland also having a game in hand only three points behind, there can be no more slip ups for Hodgson’s men.

Yes, Sterling has the raw ability to be able to perhaps cultivate an impact within one of these matches. But it isn’t the environment in which to breed such a talent. People are eager for the new blood to be brought it and it is something that England have been lackluster in doing in the past. But as begrudgingly reserved a stance it may seem, Montenegro away is a fixture for the Ashley Young’s, Theo Walcott’s and James Milner’s of this world. Not a prodigious, yet very much still developing talent in Sterling.

Some of you may rightly point out that before England face their next batch of World Cup qualifiers, friendlies against both Sweden and Brazil respectively, lie in wait for the Three Lions. Why not blood Sterling against either of those two teams?

In theory, Sterling could well come on as a substitute against either and play perhaps, a 20minute cameo. But it simply doesn’t feel necessary.

We don’t need to hand the youngster a cap for the sake of it. Despite the fears he may end up turning out for Jamaica to make his full international debut, his willingness to join up with Hodgson’s squad suggests he wants to be a part of the Three Lions.

Raheem Sterling has made only 11 professional league appearances- eight of which have come this season. He is 17 years old. Sterling is still learning the game and thrusting him straight into the upper echelons of the national side is a distraction that he doesn’t need at this point. Let him get on with his football at Liverpool, under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers and let him rise naturally through the national youth ranks. There isn’t any need to rush him.

As Rodgers said himself, there are very real dangers to fast tracking a talent such as Sterling and it’s a risk Hodgson doesn’t need to be taking at this point. Speaking last month, the Ulsterman said:

“I think with young players, you have to be careful. They can be elevated above their station too quickly.

“That is a part of it in this country – they have one good game and they get elevated into superstar status. But you see them at 23 and 24 and you wonder why they are not superstars anymore.”

There’s nothing wrong with indulging in the excitement that surrounds such a talented young player like Sterling, but such is the reactive nature of English football, we seem to want it all and we always want it now. We need to make sure that our young players development is as smooth as possible and that we do everything we can to create an environment to help them prosper.

Thrusting a 17-year-old teenager into the international set-up, along with the giddy exposure and stinging critique that goes with it, is not conducive to giving him the best possible chance. As quick as we are to build a player up, we’re even quicker to knock them back down. Could you imagine if he experienced a poor first couple of games?

Raheem Sterling is a mercurial talent and he’s one that England should look forward to enjoying in the years to come. Just not quite yet.

Would you thrust Raheem Sterling into the England senior side? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all your views. 


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