Why did it take journalists so long to speak out against the media’s witch-hunt of Raheem Sterling?

In February of this year Raheem Sterling gave a candid and at times funny interview with Talksport.

On hearing it John Cross, the Daily Mirror’s chief football writer, responded enthusiastically on Twitter. He wrote – ‘This is a quality interview. Listen and if you’ve never heard him before you’ll change your perception of @sterling7. He’s a really good guy with a sense of humour and fun personality.’

One of the first replies to the tweet was from a Manchester City fan. He wrote – ‘It was journalists like you that gave people that negative perception of him in the first place.’

Rarely on the vast, sprawling platform full of echo chambers and extreme opinions does a succinct truth manage to cut through a very complicated business, yet here it did. And while the interaction above doesn’t reveal any all-encompassing answer from which to uncover a solution from which we can ensure that the City and England star can now be left alone to get on with his football and personal life – because as stated, this is a very complicated business – it does shine a light into a corner. That’s important.

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Let’s back up though, just for a minute, because many reading this will attest that the treatment dished out in recent years to Raheem Sterling in the media and on the terraces is anything but complicated: it is grounded in racism, pure and simple.

It is racism that explains why for an inordinate amount of time it was widely believed that Raheem had fathered numerous offspring. It’s racism that led to a young player being labelled ‘greedy’ and furthermore the personification of all that is wrong with the modern game simply for having the temerity to transfer from one Premier League club to another.

It’s racism that underpinned the ensuing blood-sport as a shy, talented and clearly thoroughly decent individual was hauled from the back pages to the front and became a national hate figure. Once there he was ‘Obscene Raheem’ for buying his mum a house. He prompted mockery for buying batteries in Poundworld. He was flash and cocky for possessing an expensive car. He was rounded on for not washing it. The lad couldn’t win in a game he was being made to play very much against his will.

Raheem Sterling sits on the floor exhausted

Earlier this year he was criticised for eating breakfast the morning after the PFA awards. Earlier this year a nation erupted in erroneous fury when he got a tattoo. When he proposed to his long-term partner the Sun’s headline was “Wed devil: Love rat Raheem Sterling proposes to long-suffering girlfriend.”

It escalated to an obsession; a bizarre and unique and unedifying witch-hunt that inevitably seeped into real life. At away grounds the winger was and is routinely booed; the atmosphere hostile and venomous. Last December a 29-year-old man was jailed for racially aggravated common assault after kicking Sterling four times outside City’s training ground. “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning, you n*****,” he shouted on approaching the player.

“The media, of course [has a responsibility] – everyone and everywhere has,” Pep Guardiola said this week. “You can write something and offend, create a conflict. Today the real power is the media, not politicians, not the governments, it’s the media. That’s why you have the possibility.”

Of course I too believe that the abhorrent and persistent campaign orchestrated against Sterling that began when he was a Liverpool player in 2012 and snowballed since is grounded in racism just as I too believe like you (presumably) do that to state so is a simple, incontestable truth. Where the complication lies however is in the numerous whys that follow that conclusion.

Why Raheem? Why have the media done this and why has their unrelenting negativity – for want of a much, much better word – ‘worked’ in a supposedly progressive 21st century? Furthermore, why has it been allowed to go on unchecked within the industry? Why has it thrived when so many journalists – like John Cross – have always known the person, not the persona?

Manuel Pellegrini with Raheem Sterling at Manchester City

For the first couple of queries I am out of my depth. There is nothing wrong in admitting that and in fact it’s probably right that I do so. I am white and this past week there have been far too many people with the same skin colour as my own pontificating and speculating on a subject they only vicariously know about. When it comes to racism in sport and in life my responsibility is to be appalled, protest by whatever means possible, but mostly it’s to shut up, listen and learn.

When it comes to the silent long-standing complicity of football journalists however, as their colleagues on the news desks and – at times – colleagues in the press boxes hammered and hammered at a young man’s reputation until it reached the point where a whole new creation was carved well, here I can speak up.

And I have. Like an untold number of other bloggers I have ranted and railed and castigated about the media’s treatment and portrayal of Sterling for several years now, always attributing it to racism; always wondering out loud why the last but one episode wasn’t the last.

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In July 2016 for Football Fancast I compared Raheem’s coverage to that of Wayne Rooney. It was headlined: ‘The same tale told in black and white’. Two years ago for Unibet I urged every right-minded person to unite and make it known to The Sun and Mail that enough was enough; that we found the victimisation despicable and beyond reason. There have been others too, loads of them, all written in utter contempt and exasperation.

I say this not to big myself up. If you read my content on here you’ll know that is anything but the case. I relay it to pass on too my personal experience each and every time that has seen a groundswell of affinity where initially there was mostly scepticism. Liverpool fans. Manchester United fans. Club allegiances ceased to matter and instead normal, decent people were responding in larger and larger numbers agreeing that this overt bullying with racism as its genesis must be curtailed.

Last weekend Sterling was subjected to public and undeniable racial abuse at the hands of a Chelsea supporter and 24 hours later the player put up a post on Instagram wondering why footballers were treated differently in the media depending on the colour of their skin.

And finally; finally, finally, finally the heavyweights of football journalism stood up and spoke out. The big guns fired shots across the bow; the guys whose opinions hold sway; whose influence and platform is huge; whose jobs have always been secure enough for them to do this without consequence.

They condemned. They drew a line. The same went for Monday Night Football on Sky and the panellist’s discussion on BT Sport on Wednesday evening and most encouragingly of all ambiguity was dispensed with as the question was posed – why does Raheem Sterling endure such racial victimisation in the press and public alike?

This is an extremely welcome development and already it feels like something has changed for the better. Maybe. Hopefully. My query though; my confusion; my complication is this: what the hell took them so long?