At this moment in time Raheem Sterling’s future at Manchester City is uncertain as he continues to stall on a contract extension. There are however a couple of definites that can be nailed to the mast.
The first absolute is that City will not allow the situation to drag on into the player’s final year and with his present deal set to end in 2020, that means at this season’s conclusion the winger will be given an ultimatum: either commit or be sold.
The other categorical aspect is that no matter how this plays out he will at no point be castigated by City supporters.
This will be in stark contrast to the abhorrent treatment dished out to the then-21-year-old when he left Liverpool in admittedly acrimonious circumstances back in 2015. Granted Sterling went on strike then, requesting that he be omitted from Liverpool’s pre-season tour of Asia and then missing two days of training due to a suspiciously timed illness. Prior to that, under the advisement of his agent Aidy Ward, the youngster had given an inflammatory interview with the BBC intimating that the dispute centred on ambition over money.
His actions – that were disrespectful certainly but also sadly far from unique in the modern game – swiftly made him public enemy number one throughout Merseyside and when Sterling picked up the club’s Young Player of the Year award in May, he was roundly booed by fans.
So far, so fair enough. Who, after all, are we to judge how a fan-base reacts to a pivotal player’s decision to up sticks and leave? Only with the benefit of time we can see the vitriol that is still prevalent today, that has spread to international fixtures and away games alike. We recoil at the obsessive media hounding of a perfectly ordinary lad, we grimace at the fierce hatred that still rains down on Sterling from Reds even three years on, and it’s possible with hindsight to state that Liverpool supporters crossed a moral Rubicon back then. They spectacularly lost their senses.
First came the public indignation from the Liverpool mafia of Steven Gerrard, Phil Thompson, John Aldridge and Jamie Carragher – pretty much anyone you’d expect to see invited to a legends game at Anfield – as they threw a young fellow professional to the media wolves. That was unforgivable.
Accompanying this very purposeful whipping up of fury was a level of outrage and loathing from Liverpool fans that was incomparable back then and has sustained ever since. Truly they responded as if a footballer had never agitated for a move before in search of self-improvement and silverware. They responded as if the liver bird itself was being befouled.
But that was then and even their continued campaign of hate is old news now so there is very little value in dredging up the whole unsavoury business. Except that it is pertinent here. And there is a comparison to be made.
Because nobody knows yet how the rest of Sterling’s tenure at City will play out. It could be that his reluctance to sign an extension is part of a negotiating stance as he seeks a closer parity of wages to the club’s highest earners. Counter-balancing that notion is the informed whispers that tell of the player’s lifelong dream to play in La Liga and that furthermore Real Madrid was always the end-game in Sterling and Ward’s masterplan.
Complicating that theory however is the clear kinship between player and coach – something that was not applicable at Liverpool under Rodgers – and it is a working relationship forged on trust and respect. Sterling has played the fourth most minutes of any City player during Guardiola’s time in Manchester.
Yet should the worst case scenario come to pass, and Sterling leave City under a cloud, it will not be to a chorus of boos. At most, at worst, Blues will grumble into their pints and reluctantly wish him all of the best.
Because throughout the castigation and the witch-hunt, and the erroneous portrayal of Sterling as the epitome of all that is wrong with modern football, City fans have defended their player, their lad. A bond has been formed that goes beyond the weekly ritual of cheering. And what is more, for whatever it is worth, Sterling is aware of this. How can he not when every other weekend the Etihad reverberates to: “Raheem Sterling, he’s top of the league.”
When behaviour is viewed through a singular lens it can be all too easy to accept it. In this instance Liverpool fans turned on a former player, perceiving his actions to be a betrayal. It is perhaps only when he does likewise to another – with very different consequences – will their reprehensible and utterly weird response become as apparent as it should always have been.