By Jay Jaffa
Whether you consider his call-up to be knee-jerk or daring, Raheem Sterling’s presence the England squad ahead of the World Cup 2014 qualifier with Ukraine on Tuesday night has certainly added an extra degree to excitement to what looks an otherwise mundane fixture.
As unexpected as it is to see the 17-year-old Jamaican-born winger receive an international call-up, in truth, we probably should have seen this coming given his rapid ascent up the footballing ladder.
After moving to London with his family, Sterling joined QPR as a 10-year-old and frequently began turning out for teams far above his age group. At 14, he was not only playing for the under-18s, but dominating them, leading the club’s head of development, Steve Gallen, to effuse to AskMen: “It was comedy. He absolutely ran rings round them. A 14-year-old street player from Harlesden.”
A year later, Liverpool managed to fend off competition from Manchester United and Arsenal in February 2010 to snaffle the QPR youth player for a fee that could rise to £5 million, allowing Sterling to continue his footballing education at one of the foremost academies in the country.
He made his first-team bow in a pre-season friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach in August that year as a 15-year-old before stamping his authority on the youth team, leading to his breakthrough moment as he notched a preposterous five goals in a 9-0 demolition of Southend in the FA Youth Cup.
Yet, despite his exploits at youth level, the regular football fan has seen precious little of Sterling. It must be rare that a player could represent his country with just eight first-team games under his belt, but this is the situation facing the attacker.
Though he is unlikely to feature on Tuesday, this will be an opportunity to mix with the nation’s most recognisable stars, men of experience and dedication – yet much like the presence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling offers traits all too rare in the senior squad – pace and skill.
Of course, no-one quite does expectation like English football fans and it tends to go one of two ways. Wayne Rooney’s arrival on the international scene was met with mass adulation as the 17-year-old Liverpudlian went on to become the youngest goalscoring Englishman, preceding a destructive Euro 2004.
But on the other hand, there is Theo Walcott, England’s youngest ever player, who Sven-Goran Eriksson surprisingly took to World Cup 2006 – and even more surprisingly didn’t use him. Since then, Walcott has stalled and worryingly the moment best associated with him was THAT hat-trick against Croatia four years ago.
So it seems relevant to temper the comparisons to the prodigal sons before him with a touch of realism.
Fortunately with a manager like Brendan Rodgers overseeing his development, Sterling will not look back at his move to Anfield with regret, at least at this stage. He is already a key member of the Liverpool squad, and although they have had a moderate opening to the Premier League campaign, accumulating just a single point, the wide-man looks more than comfortable in his new surroundings – receiving plaudits for the ensconced flashes of brilliance he provided in games against Manchester City and Arsenal.
The fact that Sterling was handed his first league start against the reigning champions speaks volumes of not only the trust Rodgers has in his young charge, but the enormous ability the youngster wields.
Yet, as with any rising star, particularly in the Premier League, where big money can alter a player’s career trajectory in a flash – see John Bostock after his move from Crystal Palace to Tottenham as a prime example – they need guidance on and off the pitch.
The upcoming fly-on-the-wall documentary “Being Liverpool” provides two pertinent clips. Firstly, Sterling receives a public dressing-down from Rodgers after he snipes at his manager during a post-training chat on the club’s tour of the US. The fledgling winger appears apologetic but you would be forgiven for thinking he had blown any chance of a first-team appearance in the opening month of the season.
But more important is Rodgers’ own mantra: “Every player I see as my own son, I want to do the very best for them.” And perhaps this is part of the reason behind Rodgers’ decision to initiate Sterling into the first-team squad.
One must also remember that in Hodgson, Sterling has a wise, regimented, manager capable of enlightening the forward to parts of the game he may bypass under Rodgers. That is not to say that the Anfield boss lacks detail in his work – training ground sources indicate he is one of the most thorough bosses in the league – but Hodgson‘s dependence on repetition and structure will add another string to Sterling’s bow.
The kind of nurture he is set to receive at both club and international level seems to have him finely placed as the leading light of the latest batch to earn an England cap, and as the Liverpool youth ingratiates himself with the senior squad, expect fans to have a reason to stand up and take notice.
England’s “golden generation” still linger in the national set-up, but the arrival of Sterling will go a long way to herald the dawn of a new era as the boy that went to school in Wembley prepares to take the next step in his meteoric rise by taking to the field at Wembley Stadium.
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