Johnny chooses someone or something in football that deserves celebrating for what they’ve done this week.
Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is one of the best players in the world right now, who turned in a performance for England on Tuesday against Kosovo that was an absolutely thrilling example of cutting, incisive, highly skilled attacking play.
He’s a Brent lad who grew up in the shadow of Wembley. His father was murdered when he was young. He started at QPR then was signed as a youth team player by Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and now plays for Manchester City.
Easy to forget that he is still only 24 and had to do a lot of his growing up in public and under what many felt was the bigoted gaze of some of the worst elements in our national press. In the last two seasons he has absolutely blossomed under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, scoring an average of a goal every second game.
He runs with a remarkable speed and smoothness. At times it almost looks as though he is running downhill, gathering momentum as he goes, pouring like molten silver towards the goal. Whereas once upon a time, his final ball could be wasteful, in the last couple of years, frankly you expect him to score in every attack, or set up someone else to score.
An increasingly important and influential figure off the pitch, he continues to use his profile for the greater good, supporting and donating large amounts of money to various causes, individuals, schools and charities. This year he won Sportsman of the Year at the Sporting Equals British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards. After every game, in a thoroughly selfless way, he seems to be the one who goes to the crowd to give his shirt away, shake hands and have pictures taken. And not just that, but always looks happy to do so in full awareness of the pleasure and inspiration it provides.
In 2016 The Sun called him a ‘footie idiot’ in the headline above a piece credited only to a ‘Sun Reporter.’ Clearly, he’s anything but. However, the relentless disrespect from some areas of the media so polluted the waters that England fans even started booing him, their minds warped by the garbage in the papers.
[Thread] a selection of times when our national press have chosen to run stories on Raheem Sterling.
1. The one where Raheem was ‘tired’. pic.twitter.com/6K3cHu6r7T
— Adam Keyworth (@adamkeyworth) May 28, 2018
At such times it is easy to despair that too many in football grounds can be led by the nose, unquestioning of what they are sold, even when it is deceitful and discriminatory. Or more troublingly, maybe this is element always there, sometimes latent, sometimes given licence to be horrible.
A thoughtful, intelligent and generous young man, he’s an inspiration both on and off the pitch. That’ll be Raheem Sterling, then.
What have they done to deserve this then?
His last two games for England have been fantastic, against Kosovo he turned a performance that was little short of jaw dropping. His manager Gareth Southgate said afterwards;
“Raheem’s two performances have been of the highest level. I think he’s been almost unstoppable, his awareness of where defenders were, his ability to ride challenges, his vision and desire to get in on goal, and unselfish play as well, so I couldn’t speak highly enough of the way he played.”
It’s worth pointing out that because those games were on ITV and free-to-air, the majority watching will only see Sterling live when playing for England, relying more often on league highlights, which we know can be deceiving. But here was a player on peak and breathtaking form.
His seemingly effortless ability to beat his man, accelerate away and to provide two goals for Jadon Sancho was joyful. Possibly the finest moment came when the Kosovo centre half got too tight Raheem turned him on the centre spot and was away and gone, running directly at the goal, laying it off for Harry Kane to score. A simple, beautiful move and to those of us who have seen too many stodgy England performances over the years, dogged by slow, unimaginative build-up play, it was hard to believe it was actually England. This looked like the work of a more skilful, talented national side and Raheem is very much the expression of that.
The amount he has improved with Guardiola as his manager has been so significant that he is the poster boy for how the Spaniard can improve even already great players. It seems to be an improvement that is based more in how he thinks about what to do in a game; an improvement of mind and game intelligence.
Well, how times have changed. No-one has a bad word to say about our man and why would they? Even The Sun is now praising him for giving his boots away to a delighted young lad after the game. Gone are insults. Though to be honest, the feeling that such organs always have one chamber loaded with evil and ready to fire at any moment is inescapable.
The Mirror called him ”irresistible’ though their website, like The Sun and all local newspaper websites, are almost unusable on my Chromebook.
On ITV, Roy Keane took a short break from his increasingly unconvincing and overly well-worn role as scowling pantomime villain to say our man was “absolutely fantastic”.
Andy Hunter in the Guardian writes ‘it was a night to savour the brilliance of Raheem Sterling’.
Sam Wallace in the scary right-wing extremist’s paper of choice, the Telegraph says ‘Raheem Sterling is showing Harry Kane that he should be England’s main man’. Bufton Tufton won’t like that.
Interestingly, the Athletic had nothing about the England game v Kosovo at all even by mid-morning Wednesday, not even an opinion piece. The lead England story was ‘Chilwell and Alexander-Arnold to start for England against Kosovo’, which was surely very out-dated by 10.38am on Wednesday.
In the Independent, the excellent Miguel Delaney’s piece was headlined ‘Raheem Sterling: England and Man City star moves onto another level after showing complete understanding of game’.
The Daily Star however go for the somewhat crass ‘England have found ‘new Gazza’ in Raheem Sterling as star shines in Kosovo win’.
Phil McNulty on the BBC sports website called it ‘a world-class performance from Raheem Sterling’.
Anyone grumpy about it?
When it comes to England there always have been and still are people who are quick to pour cold water on a hot performance, or hot water on a cold performance. England seem to be the only international side capable of being both overrated and underrated simultaneously. But most agree that these last couple of games, to misquote Sven, were a case of “front third good, back two thirds, not so good”.
All of Sterling’s erstwhile critics, and there were plenty, seem to have been put back in their box by his brilliance and humanity. But let’s be under no illusions, implied or outright racism, bigotry and stereotyping sells, perhaps more than it has done for many years, as the politics of the right dallies with it in order to win votes, especially in some parts of England. There’s a healthy market just waiting to lap up stories and character assassinations that confirm various well-worn tropes and stereotypes about all manner of people from all manner of backgrounds. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not so subtle, but it is always there and there is always someone or some publication prepared to exploit it.
We should be under no illusions that if Sterling does something ‘wrong’ he will, even now, likely be treated in some sections of the press very differently from if Harry Kane does the same ‘wrong’ thing. In other words, we do not live in an equal society and must always be vigilant of the more sulphurous elements.
What the people say
Not hidden in plain sight, yet
— 4_4_haiku (@4_4_haiku) September 12, 2019
Is it too early to be talking about him as a top 5 player in Europe if not further afield? He’s playing a different game to everyone else on the pitch.
From “Footie Idiot” to poster boy for the most relatable England team of my lifetime.
He’s played against opponents, the media, and prejudiced fans. And he’s winning. No better has made an impact on football this year like he has. GIVE HIM THE SODDING BALLON D’OR!
Really pleasing seeing him go from Public Enemy No.1 to the verge of National Hero.
Really disheartening knowing he’ll complete the circle back to Public Enemy No.1 soon enough through no fault of his own.
— Aaronaldo (@Aaronaldo3883) September 11, 2019
Holds and gives it at the right time
And despite the perception the tabloids were pushing, he seems like a genuinely nice bloke always engaging with fans.
A fine example for all people young & old not just in dealing with abuse, but to challenge those enabling the spread of that abuse, to be thoughtful, humble & respectful, to absorb lessons learned from the best to improve in your profession. A pity he plays for the sportswashers!
An incredible player. Makes you wonder how good a coach Pep is. Would Sterling have progressed to this level if he stayed at Liverpool?
Comes across as an individual brought up right, appears to enjoy life, his profession and has time for the fans. Whenever i read Mediawatch i always wonder why the press and various other people (lets be honest social media) has such a problem with him
— Steve-O (@EliteFPLSteveO) September 11, 2019
Unreal. Genuinely thought my laptop had broken watching his blurred legs only to realise everybody else was still running at normal speed.
Raheem of the Rovers
The hero we do not deserve. And heck, a bloody amazing football player, who must be one of the contenders of becoming the best players in the world once M&R retire. Unabashed fan. And he is about half my age.
Does an awful lot to change perceptions of the lazy stereotype associated with young, black footballers. Has navigated the trickier parts of his career and development with no small amount of dignity and class. He’s also rather good at football
— Barney O’Kelly (@barneyokelly) September 11, 2019
On the pitch he has honed his raw talents to become one of the most potent attacking players in world football. Off it, he has battled prejudice, racism, slander, and more with stoic dignity. Not for the praise, but because it’s the right thing to do. A genuine example of a hero.
So in the face of some awful dog whistle treatment from the UK press. We all should be proud of Raheem Sterling as a footballer but more importantly as a human being.
Appears to be tough as teak, physically and mentally. Exceptional player and improving at a rate of knots. Genuinely inspiring. Still about 16 as far as i can tell. Didn’t see this coming when he left Liverpool, but glad it has.
— Rob Michael-Phillips (@RobCadenceTD) September 11, 2019
Watched him loads at Liverpool. Was disappointed in the way he left more than him actually leaving, but his decision has clearly paid off – we wuz robbed at just £50m. I knew he was super-talented but didn’t foresee him being so influential or scoring so many goals. Superstar.
Britain has a problem with successful people from BME backgrounds; specifically black Britons, from working class, cultural, diverse areas.
If footballers are role models then Sterling is one of the finest examples right now, he has answered his critics with dignity off the pitch and with brilliant skill on it.
Outside of my club, the most likeable player.
The constant vilification he has been subjected to since deciding to leave Liverpool has been disgusting, but he has continued to rise above that.
He is now a world class player and a role model to kids in overcoming adversity.
— Daniel Childs (@SonOfChelsea) September 11, 2019
His attributes, plus what he has learned under Pep, make him the ideal player for the modern strong team needing to break down a defence. Very good decision maker, decent finisher, very quick, extremely fit. Very good off the ball as well as on it. Modern player.
During the World Cup, I had fans around me boo him, make him a scapegoat. There were people who vilified him and are now singing a different tune; call them out.
It’s obvious to even the most casual follower of the game that Raheem Sterling has matured both as a man and a striker over the last season and a half. He has the confidence of a man who knows his own value and does not have to follow anybody. Long may it continue
There is no other player, even in my Spurs, that I want to see succeed more. Through no fault of his own or by his own choosing represents the battle against racism and bigotry. With every slur & attack against his character I support him further. Also just bloody good isn’t he!!
— J (@Jarack11111) September 11, 2019
What does the future hold?
We have to hope he doesn’t suffer any major injury, the like of which speedy players all too often do, but barring that, certainly under Guardiola, he seems set to wow us time and again. At the start of the season I predicted he’d be the top goalscorer of the season and that doesn’t yet look unlikely.
Once his manager leaves Manchester City, it would be wonderful to see him play in Spain, Germany or Italy and not moving on to another ‘Big Six’ club in England. And to be fair to him, he seems to be a man who is interested in expanding his horizons.
We’ve seen Raheem grow into himself in public and it is a very attractive thing to witness. He seems certain to continue to be an important, influential and inspirational figure.