One doesn’t have to cast back very far to find a time when the back pages of Britain’s gutter press were plastered in hollow aspersions about Raheem Sterling’s ‘attitude’ on and off the pitch. For whatever reason, it became a habitual go-to for the sporting media. For some it was the £50m price tag he commanded in his move from Liverpool to Manchester City; for others it was his spendthrift lifestyle, partying in Ibiza and penchant for extravagant property – yes, you heard it right, the cheeky bastard had the nerve to buy a bloody house!
The British press bordered on obsessive: one week chastising the 22-year-old for buying a sausage roll from Greggs, and the next, castigating him for purchasing a crystal-encrusted sink. The media couldn’t decide whether Raheem was cheap or frivolous. Things only worsened when the England team collapsed out of the Euros after defeat to Iceland – one newspaper unfairly running with the headline: The Fall of Sterling: Life and times of Three Lions footie idiot Raheem.
Unable to reach expectations in his first two seasons at City, Sterling has since flourished under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, tearing teams apart with his supersonic speed and growing awareness for the game. But still, away fans continue to hiss every time the Jamaican-born winger receives the ball, while the press prefers to pile the plaudits on Spurs’ Deli Ali – a player, it seems, who has done everything in his power to completely fuck up my fantasy team. Ali may be four months younger than Sterling, but the two look light years apart this season.
With 12 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions, the press’s pantomime villain is not only improving with every game but standing out amongst a team of superstars. The former Liverpool winger is a magician on the ball, serving Sane and Jesus with tricks and flicks straight out of a Messi showreel. He also knows when to keep things simple and work for the team. For me, his growing maturity – and let’s not forget he’s only 22 – is one of the reasons why I think he will be integral to the England team next year. With the aid of Pep, Sterling has added a final product to his once road-to-no-where runs: deft balls now abound in the opposition’s penalty box and his relentless darting runs have started to pay dividend. Make no mistake, Raheem is an integral cog in Man City’s well-oiled wheel.
Sterling has become more intelligent and more mature; stepping away from the distractions of social media to become a more diligent player under Pep. His pivotal role in Manchester City’s hard-fought 2-1 victory over Huddersfield on Sunday, for instance – earning a penalty for Aguero before scoring the winner himself, – epitomises his athleticism and ruthlessness. There was also his 97th-minute winner at Bournemouth. And his late leveller against Everton. Oh, and his 88th-minute chip against Feyenoord in the Champions League. What about his goal against Napoli?
Unfortunately for the lad from Wembley, even if he does go on to score 20+ goals – in what will surely be a Championship-winning season – his success will be tarnished by an underlying distaste instigated by the press.