Reputational rehabilitations in sport are rare but not unheard of. In the eighties Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was an unpopular figure, disliked for his brash and cocky demeanour. But then health issues, including dementia were made known post-retirement and the public notably softened their stance. Australian cricketer Steve Smith, meanwhile, will never be fondly regarded in the UK but after a summer in which he has taken the sport to exalted heights it can be said that he has reclaimed substantial respect following last year’s ball-tampering scandal that saw the team captain ostracised for a year.
Perhaps the most famous example is David Beckham, who underwent a remarkable transformation from sinner to saint in the late nineties. His sending off at the 1998 World Cup resulted in an effigy being hung outside a pub in south London, so strong was the vitriol at the time. But hard work, trophies, and subsequent memorable moments with England saw the Manchester United midfielder turn things round, to such an extent that his pop star wife later admitted that she called him ‘Goldenballs’.
Then there is Raheem Sterling, of course, the most unique instance of this phenomena.
In Sterling’s case his vilification – described as a ‘persecution’ by the Times late last year – was unique because, unlike the others, he had not actually done anything wrong to trigger it. It should be stated here that ‘wrong’ is such a subjective word. After all, Beckham merely flicked out a leg in instinctive petulance.
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In the summer of 2015 the then 21-year-old winger was one of 27 players who switched from a Premier League club to another. The manner in which he agitated for a move understandably riled Liverpool supporters but quite why this aggrieved other fans and the media at large remains a mystery given that it is commonplace these days for footballers to deploy such tactics to secure a transfer.
Nevertheless, the fee was sufficiently high enough to gain headlines and attention for a good while and the odd jibe that he wasn’t worth the money could be heard down your local watering hole simply because Sterling was not yet a finished article. On the international stage, meanwhile, the player was one of several to under-perform at consecutive major tournaments for England.
That’s it really. That’s what Raheem Sterling had in the debit column. It’s not a lot and especially when it’s balanced out by other realities, namely that Sterling was clearly a shy and decent lad – that was plain to the naked eye and to any fair interpretation. He was also improving season on season at the Etihad and it was only a matter of time before he transferred that improvement to the England set-up. Furthermore, he never once hid on the pitch and always gave 100%; character traits that are usually highly appreciated in this country.
Alas these truths were of no consequence and very quickly Sterling found himself the poster boy of all that is deemed wrong with modern football. His move from Liverpool had him caricatured as a ‘snake’. Beneath the headline ‘Obscene Raheem’ his purchase of a house for his mother had The Sun using up their entire thesaurus of trigger-words in faux-outrage.
He was a ‘shamed’ winger. He was ‘flaunting’ the ‘blinging’ house (the latter description there being deeply troubling) all the while ‘boasting’. Soon it was open season. Soon we were venturing into some very weird territory. Sterling was castigated for taking an Easyjet flight. He was mocked for eating a Greggs pastie. The ‘penny-pinching’ winger was taunted for driving an unwashed car. He was slammed as a ‘love-rat’ when proposing to his ‘long-suffering fiance’ Paige Milan, a stark contrast to the regal celebration of ‘Posh and Becks’ engagement.
On and on it went, drip, drip, drip into the nation’s psyche; from the vicious to the ridiculous and it shouldn’t be under-estimated how much of a damaging reputational effect this had with the mainstream populace beyond football. I recall my own mother – a person who has no interest in or knowledge of the game – telling me last year: “I see that Sterling is at it again.”
At it. Again.
What she was referring to was the hyperbolic and hysterical coverage of the England star’s gun tattoo, perhaps the nadir of the entire Sterling media obsession and more importantly the one that turned it into a national conversation where sense eventually entered the fray.
Before we move on to the dramatic change in perception that has occurred this past year as a result of that sense it is worth staying momentarily with that tattoo farrago. People lost their minds. Think of the children. He was a role model after all.
Yet nobody talks about that tattoo anymore, despite the fact that by virtue of being indelible ink it is still there on Sterling’s lower right leg. Nobody frets that an impressible child is going to seek out a real, actual weapon and run amok. To believe so would be utterly ludicrous.
The tattoo is still the same. We are not.
On the pitch this past year – as he was last year but let’s take our victories where we can – Raheem Sterling has been brilliant. Since the start of 2018/19 he has scored 31 times for Manchester City. For his country he has scored eight times in his last eight appearances. He has become a pivotal figure for both.
Off the pitch he has undertaken a media offensive, making himself available for more interviews with the intention of highlighting what a thoroughly nice guy he is while a number of public responses to the plight of racism in our game have been greeted with widespread admiration.
Such positivity has been mirrored. Respected writer Daniel Storey recently called him a ‘cultural leader’.
Given what he went through at the hands of people who should know better, Raheem Sterling being consistently brilliant makes me proud in a unique way. He has become a cultural leader.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) September 10, 2019
Trevor Sinclair said last week that Sterling was ‘up there with Messi and Ronaldo’. The Daily Mirror insisted he is a ‘national treasure’. Concerning the Three Lions, where once he was a hate-figure he is now a symbol of hope. Concerning the man, where once he was pilloried he is now loved.
Even as a Manchester City fan who adores Raheem Sterling, I must confess that I find comparisons with Messi a touch far-fetched. Just as I find the elevation of him as a ‘national treasure’ a little silly. Sir David Attenborough is a national treasure.
Perhaps though this lavish acclaim is over-compensation for the treatment he previously received – to go from one extreme to the other – and if that is so it’s an intriguing scenario.
It suggests remorse; it hints at an attempt to redeem ourselves.
Raheem Sterling deserves all the credit in the world and more for how he has turned things around, to go from zero to hero, but regarding the remarkable change in his perception that is on us.
And we don’t deserve any credit for that. None whatsoever.
Instead, there is only a lesson.