First the facts (they’re strongly held opinions, but hey, who’s counting anymore?): Raheem Sterling is not, has never been, and never will be, an elite player. This I’m sure we can all agree. Elite is an easy word to exemplify, by referencing one of the poles of its existence: Dennis Bergkamp. Would there be anyone with more than a passing interest in football who would ever contend Dennis Bergkamp was not elite? Of course not. And how come? Because it’s that clarity, that ability in the hottest moments a football pitch can produce to be perfectly ice-cold, see the best option and execute, that marks out a group of players as different to the rest, and Dennis Bergkamp was the training guide on how it looks. I loved how the recipient of a Bergkamp assist would often find himself in an ocean of grass because Bergkamp had such an acute grasp of space and dynamics that his pass would not so much beat the defence as put them in a different postcode.
Sterling will never make a pass like that. He will never do as both David Silva and De Bruyne can. Unfair comparisons perhaps, but he cost more than double the former, and not much less than the latter, so I’m afraid that’s the measure. He’s leagues beneath Sane. I will, with a weary nod of the head, accept that when cosseted by what is often the utterly invincible nature of the current Man City side, he is able to relax and play to the best of his abilities.
But, without wishing to get too erudite, it does my ******* head in when commentators, analysts and beyond seek to lump him into the same category as the elite players swarming around him, just because what is so regularly a toe-poked cross to the wrong area or an out-of-control dribble taken down a dead end transpires to be a mishmash of a cross that somehow finds Sergio Aguero in space, and he does his elite Aguero thing and aren’t we all happy for everyone involved?
We should be, of course. It pains me that I find it impossible to feel goodwill for what I read as the scant improvement of Sterling’s abilities under Guardiola. And it could easily be possible. If Sterling had gone for £14million, which sounds about right to me, I couldn’t be happier about the pluck and endeavour he was showing to thrust his rough-and-ready English anti-technique in among the smooth stylings of his continental teammates. Genuinely, he might actually be my favourite City player.
As it is, I’m still too gullible in the face of these moronic numbers – I haven’t yet learnt to discount them having any meaning at all – and subsequently, I feel that if your price tag includes a 50, then there’s an expectation that you possess something special. A dash of the otherworldly. A breath of rarefied air. This doesn’t include ‘being English’. But what, honestly, does Sterling have that makes him special in that City attacking line, beyond his passport? And why do I care, except I guess because it feels like such a capitulation to the sickly future of all of this to say, oh well, £50million, doesn’t really mean anything anyway, does it? I want it to mean something.
And because it clearly doesn’t, then I’m afraid the feeling inside me has curdled into taking a grim pleasure in the inevitable cock-ups that the true footballing ability of Raheem Sterling will always be waiting to produce, given the exorbitant amount of pressure that must exist in the mind of someone who thinks of his own price tag, then thinks of those of Sane, Silva and Aguero; he must sometimes feel in his stomach like someone who walks up to the check-in desk at an airport, pats his pocket and realises he left his passport on top of the TV.
Speaking of mislaid passports, there’s obviously another reason why this is such a painful outlook for me to hold – the absolute shower that share my bed on this subject. I have a horrible feeling that the people who will be most fervently in agreement, at least up until this paragraph, are the ones who feel very, very cross with Raheem Sterling and his behaviour in general, beginning with the colour of his skin.
Let us waste no time, intelligence or dignity considering whether the tabloid press are or aren’t being racist when they write ‘stories’ like ‘Look at Raheem parading his new house’ or refer to him and random drug-dealers in the same sentence; we’re talking about media outlets that cut their teeth defiling the Liverpool dead, hacking into the phones of dead teenagers and spouting barbarous lies about foreign people in order to sell a political choice to benefit their parent companies. I guess, if we’re being judicious, we could call 95% of their employees the scum of the earth, attribute to them every crappy little twist of small-minded, fag-ash racism a human could possess, and leave it at that. They might not all deserve it, but hey – that’s showbiz!
I don’t like feeling this kind of schadenfreude, particularly for a footballer the same age as my baby sister, who I’m sure is trying his absolute nut off to appear passably at the level of the players surrounding him, and often failing miserably. It’s not nice, and it’s not healthy. But I think everything has its true value, and if that value is superseded by everyone acting silly buggers as if money and sense can be splashed around as meaningless items, then there will be a different kind of price to pay, to correct the imbalance.
And that price for what it’s worth is random guys and girls feeling a weird kind of animosity for the exploits of a player where once, I’m sure, they were either indifferent or vaguely positive in their attitude. Once again, more of football becomes soured. And then you watch a game like the 2-2 at Anfield and remember that, because when it’s good it’s just so bloody good, none of the above, thankfully, really matters that much anyway.
Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter
P.S You may whinge all you want about how central he seems to Guardiola’s ideas – central enough, huh, that players like Sanchez or Mahrez never crossed his mind? There’s evidently no real need to buy them at this stage of this particular season, but if he’s starting in that position next season I’ll send you all a tenner.