Just under two years ago, in one of the few moments of genuine interest in the “Being Liverpool” documentary, a young Raheem Sterling was being told to consider his future and whether it was going to feature a flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Surely, at the time, only the most optimistic of observers would have thought that the warning being handed out to him by his new manager at a Boston training camp would be the start of a journey that saw in-flight meals being on the agenda again for Brazil 2014. You think this 17 year old kid is going to be in the starting line-up for England’s opener in the next tournament? Steady! It is testament to both the player and his club coach that the post office search to find out how many Brazilian Real you will be getting for your travel spends will not be the only time that Sterling will pop up in this summer’s World Cup conversations.
Even as recently as around 6 months ago it seemed a very long shot that the young Jamaican-born forward would be producing the sort of form that would virtually guarantee him the opportunity to witness, in person, Roy Hodgson’s inevitable white socks and sandals combo at the Rio breakfast table. If you were being optimistic to think it was likely back in 2012 then you were just being downright silly to be still thinking it in September 2013.
Whether it was the pressure to perform under the weight of a new contract with much improved terms (and the elevated expectation that brings with it) or just an attitude of taking his foot off the accelerator and coasting, after having made it to the big time, Sterling was struggling. Struggling for confidence, struggling for form and struggling to make any sort of impact upon the fortunes of the Liverpool first team. There was plenty of talk amongst the fans about how it might make sense to loan him out in order to get him some games, hopefully to a lower placed Premier league side, maybe to a Championship side.
How seriously Brendan Rodgers considered that option we cannot know but with the benefit of hindsight the decision to keep him involved has been completely justified. One of the great features of this brilliant, and yet utterly bonkers, season was the ability of the astute Northern Irishman to improve and motivate players that were previously thought by many to be of little value to the side, and Sterling is definitely one that applies to.
In a sport where the success rate of transfers can be, even for the most skilled of operators, quite hit and miss the ability to develop the squad of players at your disposal is absolutely priceless. Enabling players to access every drop of their potential has very much been the hallmark of this Liverpool season and having a whole squad buying into that culture has been one of the most pleasing aspects of 2014. Sterling, Henderson and Flanagan, amongst others, have stood out as totems of this mode of thinking and this way of approaching your football.
It says a lot about young Raheem’s progress this season that someone formerly considered a fringe player is now being included into the billing alongside Suarez and Sturridge in all the talk of possibly the greatest front-line the Premier league has ever seen. Even the suggestion that all the talk of the SAS becomes the SASAS (and we can only hope those who propagate these acronyms come to a messy end due to complications with a JCB or are crushed by a falling wardrobe in MFI) shows the esteem in which he is now being held by the wider football watching public. As his two, more illustrious, team-mates continued to produce numerical outputs never before seen on these shores, and leaving the rest of Europe looking on in disbelief, he continued to assist, facilitate and support as the lesser member of the three amigos.
One of the most significant developments of his season is that he can no longer be pigeon-holed as the traditional flying winger. It is to Rodgers’ massive credit that we are now watching a player expanding his range of skills and the number of tasks you can set him to on a month by month basis. It is astounding to think that someone viewed initially as being mainly about pace and ability in one on one situations would be dropped into the number 10 role for a visit to Old Trafford and would take to it like it was something he had been doing for years.
Fellaini tried to bully someone a good foot shorter than him and the result of their battle was almost embarrassing for the big Belgian. His tactical understanding of what is required from him, his ability to shield the ball and hold onto possession, to pass at the right time and drive forward at the right time and, as much as anything, his technical ability and will to get back and steal the ball off the opposition have all come on hugely.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in six months of progress he has developed an all-round game that many more established forwards previously involved with the national side have never developed, despite years of playing time. Lennon, Johnson, Wright-Phillips, Townsend and even Theo Walcott could not claim to be as rounded a player as the diminutive 19 year old Liverpool starlet; the closest comparison from an Englishman would probably be the equally exciting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Much of the improvement that can be seen in Sterling is rooted in a clear acceptance of the need to sacrifice individualistic tendencies and ego, and to allow your work to be subsumed within the collective effort of the team. In his pressing of the opposition you can see a physical representation of his buying into the ethos of this Brendan Rodgers vision.
There is always a risk with players that have become used to getting success early, and being a class above the level they are at, with managing to rein in their attitude and ground them for first team football; something Rodgers seems to have coped with elegantly in this case. Whether or not the process was as pain free as the Liverpool manager makes out to the press is something outside observers will possibly never know, what we do know is that the manager has repaid his young talent's efforts with his comments to the media.
After the annihilation of Arsenal at Anfield it was not enough that Rodgers put Sterling forward as the best winger in the league at that time, the suggestion that he may at some point have been problematic or “cheeky” also had to be put to bed. He was focussed on his football, he was a brilliant kid, he is not a problem; this is the line from now on, this is his back-story, do not make me have to say this again - firm face. Those comments seemed to me to be stating that Rodgers now believes no amount of carrot will go to the young lad’s head, he’s ready for setting high targets and the reward for buying into the manager is his public support and protection.
As unremarkable a comment as it was at the time it displayed the media savvy of Rodgers. A media narrative can be a powerful thing in football and with a few accusations of misdemeanours in Sterling’s short career the importance of branding the lad with a more positive image, and controlling his narrative, was something that was not lost on the LFC gaffer. Luckily Rodgers hasn’t been asked too many questions about some of Sterling’s horrific haircuts as there are obviously limits any manager’s support can be stretched to, and a few of his ropey barnets have been way past that point.
The one possible negative aspect of not only Sterling’s development, but also that of the other Liverpool lads eligible for England, is that it may well put many regular punters at Anfield in the awkward position of feeling twinges of support for Roy Hodgson’s England adventure to Brazil.
If, as is not beyond the realms of possibility, the England line-up for the opening game in Manaus versus Italy features five Liverpool players what are we to think? Will the relentless Hodgeyness of England crush the spirit out of the Reds involved or will their vibrant, dynamic brilliance that we’ve seen this season break off the dull shackles imposed on them and lift the national team to a level that makes them worth watching?
Raheem lifting the World Cup with Gerrard, Henderson, Sturridge and Johnson? Steady!