It’s been a weird old year for Raheem Sterling. Last summer he and his agent managed to wangle a big move to a team that, back then, looked an awful lot like the best in the country, a process that didn’t make either man particularly popular. Having signed for Manchester City, he started out rather well, forming one quarter of an attacking foursome that looked like it would reduce defences across the country to limp-kneed wetties who’d be crying for mummy by the end of 90 minutes.
And then it all started to go a bit…nothingy. A drop off in form that mirrored the team as a whole, followed by a couple of injuries and he found himself on the bench by March (probably only lasting that long because of ailments elsewhere in the squad) and completed 90 minutes only once in the last ten weeks of the season. The general summary of his first season at City would seem to hover somewhere between ‘not terrible’ and ‘not much good either.’
That obviously hasn’t stopped him from getting the sort of abuse more associated with Daphne & Celeste at the 2000 Reading festival, when the oiled up moshers in the crowd encouraged the novelty pop duo to withdraw from the stage via the medium of bottles of piss – a high point for humanity, that one. Sterling has received – as the kids and ex-professional footballers will have it – ‘pelters’ from all quarters: from certain rather impatient sections of the City support for his increasingly lax performances on the pitch, and from fans of opposing teams who have booed him for the heinous sins of wanting to further his career and earn more money, and going about achieving both in a rather robust way. Obviously he wasn’t going to be popular at Anfield, but as to why fans of, among others, West Brom, Norwich and – get this – Everton have felt the need to boo him…well, make your own mind up as to why that would be.
Sterling might even consider himself slightly lucky to be in the England squad at all: the presence of Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge meant one midfielder was going to get the chop, and plenty seemed keen to get Andros ‘The Farmfoods Arjen Robben’ Townsend onto the plane, on the back of a few half-decent performances for Newcastle. But in the squad he is, and you know what – Sterling might just turn out to be a pretty important player for Mr Roy’s merry boys.
The form worm certainly seems to have turned, or at least is starting to: he played well against the admittedly modest Australia, while he spruced things up and set up the winner versus Portugal last week. Sterling might not start against Russia in Marseille, but as a potentially game-changing substitute – now there’s a thought to get you tingling.
To have a man with Sterling’s pace available for the remaining 20 minutes of a game with tired, tension and cramp-filled legs strewn about the pitch could be handy, to say the least, but of course it’s no good being quick unless you can actually do something with that speed. This has been an issue over the season, but it’s worth considering why that might be. Sterling’s confidence has clearly been low, possibly because of the assorted barracking from the stands, which could explain his apparent reluctance to run at defenders as he should have done. Plus, City as a team weren’t exactly producing rip-roaring football, and when the ten blokes around you (as well as the one on the touchline) look like they’re all under the influence of Mogadon, the chances are your performance isn’t going to be tip-top either. Obviously it would have been lovely if Sterling had been better, but his disappointing showings have at least been in context.
It certainly sounds like he’s happier playing for England and Roy Hodgson than City and Manuel Pellegrini. “It’s really positive when the manager tells you every time you get the ball that he wants you to go forward,” he said recently, of life with the national team. “It’s really good. In every training session, if I don’t go forward then the manager has a real dig at me. That’s something I’m relishing and something I enjoy. When someone really pushes you to want to go forward and play. I’m most definitely enjoying my football.”
That isn’t necessarily a DIG or a SLAM or, most heinously. a BLAST at Pellegrini, but it’s notable that he felt the need to explain why he’s having a bit of fun now. Over the last season he’s had to deal with justifying both his career decision and his transfer fee, and adapt to a new team with loftier expectations and standards; most decidedly not fun, you’d imagine. That isn’t present with England (for him at least), and the pressure is basically off Sterling for the European Championship. After a relatively poor season few are expecting big things from him, and the attention is on other members of the squad. Rashford et al might have to take the bullet this time.
All of which could mean a low-key big summer for Sterling. At least he can be pretty sure he won’t be booed.