Raheem Sterling had been warned. As he sat on the Manchester City bench in the 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace, the winger’s mind must have wandered back to the summer. Liverpool fans, nay, football fans, had told him this would happen, that regular first-team football would become a thing of the past, traded for a bit-part role in Manchester. A young, English player trying to break through at City? Good luck.
For Aston Villa fans, the irony of Fabian Delph playing out of his skin in the same match will not have been lost. Having been branded a ‘snake’ since his controversial switch to the Etihad Stadium, Delph had become public enemy No 1 at Villa Park. Loyalty? Such a word did not apparently exist in Delph’s lexicon. This was another player who had swapped regular football for a benchwarming role, a man who betrayed his captaincy and shattered his status at one club for a few more zeros on his pay cheque at another. We’re in mid-January, and this was the first 90 minutes Delph had completed in the Premier League since the final day of last season. Another English talent wasted. What a shame.
Money-grabbers. Mercenaries. Snakes. Benchwarmers. Greedy. Sterling and Delph are two vastly different players, involved in two completely contrasting transfers for fees at opposite ends of the footballing spectrum. But, as of this summer, they were bound by one club. One talent-destroying club. Curse them both, and curse Manchester City.
Neither Sterling or Delph had heeded the warnings: ‘Be careful what you wish for’, ‘Where’s your loyalty?’ Neither had listened. ‘Look what happened to Scott Sinclair, to Adam Johnson, to Jack Rodwell.’ It could have been so different.
It is, of course. Sterling, a bona-fide first-team regular, adopted an unfamiliar role on the bench on Saturday, deemed important enough by Manuel Pellegrini to be rewarded with a rest. Of City’s 33 games in all competitions, the England winger has featured in 29, starting 25. Only four of his team-mates have more Premier and Champions League minutes to their name this season, and only Sergio Aguero has scored more goals.
Delph’s successful return from an injury-ravaged start to the season continued with a goal and a man-of-the-match performance in place of Yaya Toure against Palace. The midfielder has featured in 16 games this season, starting seven, having missed 12 through injury. There have been just five matches for which he has been available but not selected.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. All summer Sterling and Delph had been told that they were destroying their futures. The former, born in Jamaica, and a QPR player from the ages of nine to 16, should show more loyalty to Liverpool, a club with whom he had spent three years. The latter, born in Bradford, and a Leeds United player from the ages of 11 to 19, should show more respect to Aston Villa, a club with whom he had spent the last six years.
Loyalty, as always, was a one-way street: something demanded of players but not of clubs. Liverpool were far from blameless in the transfer saga involving Sterling, and were rewarded with a handsome sum of £44million. Villa had sold their best player – their biggest asset – yet expected Delph to stay. Neither club were subject to open letters, burned shirts or disgusting abuse. The vilified parties were Sterling and Delph. Their crimes were ambition. For their reward, just check the league table.
One wonders what Sterling would think of his former Liverpool side, languishing in ninth place, with fewer goals than Sunderland. And what would Delph make of Aston Villa, six points adrift at the bottom of the Premier League, and 10 points from safety? Neither man will revel in the struggles at Anfield or Villa Park, and both will hold fond memories. But both will be delighted that they ignored the warnings.
They may well will harbour regrets over how their moves materialised, and so they should. Sterling – or rather his agent, Aidy Ward – could have handled his departure with more dignity and grace, while Delph’s sudden U-turn from signing a new contract at Villa to leaving did him no favours. But they are human. They are young. They make mistakes. That is their right. They left clubs who had finished sixth and 17th last season and joined the side in third. A side now one point off the Premier League summit. A side in the Champions League knock-out stages. A side still capable of winning four trophies this season. The direct replacements at their former clubs are Jordon Ibe and Idrissa Gueye. Within a month of their arrivals, City had signed Kevin de Bruyne. Their own personal ambition is finally matched by that of their employer.
Both Sterling and Delph have avoided the supposed graveyard of English players at Manchester City, where careers are laid to rest before they even begin. Joe Hart is one of the few success stories at the Etihad.
“I don’t react to it when people say that about this club,” said England’s No 1 when asked of City’s perceived lack of English players. “Plenty of things have been said about Manchester City but I’m very happy here and I know these new boys are too.
“I’ve got some very good friends who are English and have played here and have nothing but good things to say about this club.
“People will always have their opinions about this club but I’ve always said those on this side know what it is all about and are all very happy with the club as a whole.”
The message was clear, and it will remain so: if you’re good enough, you’ll play, no matter your nationality. Messrs Sinclair, Rodwell and Johnson failed to break through at City because they were not of the required standard, not because they were English. That those three now play at one of the bottom two clubs in the Premier League says enough. Such a fate will not befall Sterling, and Delph looks likely to enjoy a prosperous future in Manchester, too. If only they were more careful what they had wished for.