By Nick Friend
In Raheem Sterling, Liverpool possess a rare commodity. An English footballer of real talent, Sterling finds himself in a seat unoccupied amongst English footballers since Wayne Rooney placed his cards on the table in 2010. Before him, only Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole in this millennium had been able to take their places on the throne now frequented by Sterling.
English football – and speaking more widely, English society as a whole – places much pride in the commitment, pluckiness, passion and loyalty of its citizens. When one speaks of ‘Englishness’, one is simply paraphrasing grit and determination. It is why Tim Sherwood has become such a figure of mock. ‘Tactics Tim’, as he sarcastically branded, is the stereotype – a more Churchillian Stuart Pearce, if you like.
Take the England cricket team: outgoing chairman Giles Clarke described Alastair Cook‘s family as being “the sort of people we want the England cricket captain’s family to be.” In the dog-eat-dog world of international sport, such a comment is verging on the fantastical. Yet, to many Englishmen, sprawled on armchairs with cup of tea in hand, such words from Clarke are music to the ears.
It is this same noble but outdated attitude that is threatening to derail the Liverpool career of young Sterling. Unlike Gerrard, for whom the sight of burning shirts and pictures was too much to take for this Scouse lad and Liverbird worshipper, the Jamaica-born Sterling has no such unbreakable ties to the club or city. Indeed, if there is one club to whom little Raheem owes his professional career, it is Queens Park Rangers – ironic given that the west London club has not produced a first team player for sixteen years.
Ross Barkley and Harry Kane – two contemporaries of the Liverpool man – sit alongside Sterling on the road to potential stardom, as did Jack Wilshere until injuries took over. However, unlike Sterling, the trio’s lifelong emotional attachment to their clubs mean that an impasse like this is unlikely to arise. To borrow a lyric from that most hideous of chants, Kane, Barkley, and Wilshere are, in the eyes of their fans, ‘one of their own.’ Sterling, no matter what he goes onto achieve at Anfield or elsewhere, will never be granted the adulation afforded to local Roy of the Rovers figures.
Hence, Sterling sits in a position which, by sheer Englishness, makes us uncomfortable. Here is a man demanding huge sums of money, but also showing less than the extreme loyalty that we expect from our heroes. For us Englishmen, this concept is deeply troubling.
Tribal fandom in this country takes hold over our better nature. The Liverpool FC Foundation charity match last Sunday was testament to this. More than a charity match, this was a day of nostalgia, a day of tribalism and refusal to wave goodbye to the past. Reina, Suarez, Torres, Alonso, Riise, Carragher to name but a few of the former stars treated like royalty.
Effectively, in a society based on a concept of loyalty that is often misplaced and misdirected, Raheem Sterling’s desire to consider all his options is deemed foolhardy, selfish and greedy.
What we choose to ignore, though, is that we are mere mortals, mere fanatics. Sterling is the pawn in our game. He is a cold, calculated, unemotional; capable of turning games on his own – a gun for hire rather than an antique rifle to lock away in the cabinet for safe keeping.
He is no Liverpool fan – and nor should he be. Born thousands of miles west of the Wirral and raised in Shepherd’s Bush, Sterling can look through vision void of any emotional tint. We cannot. We all have agendas.
Liverpool fans want to keep hold of their sensational talent. QPR fans wish to see Sterling move on for an astronomical fee, given their entitlement to 25% of any future transfer fee. England fans will dread the possibility of Sterling following fellow starlets Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Adam Johnson onto Manchester City’s homegrown list. Equally, such is the intensity of microscope analysing Gareth Bale’s every move in Madrid’s press, Roy Hodgson must pray that Sterling does not end up a Galactico, burning himself out in a bid to meet the club’s astronomical standards.
In a week that has seen debate surrounding the Premier League’s dearth of Englishness, we should be applauding Sterling – an English footballer with a rare talent. For once, ‘one of our own’ holds the cards. Andy Carroll is still England’s most expensive ever footballer. Forget Sterling’s wage demands for a moment, and consider the sheer talent of a man whose signature would be gleefully pounced upon by any of Europe’s elite.
Ultimately, what we must understand here is that this is not an issue born out of greed. This is an issue born of a perceived unenglishness, from an unemotional precocious talent whose ambitions go well beyond cosying up to his club’s supporters.