Leader And Mentor: Raheem Sterling Has Become England's MVP On And Off The Pitch

Three Lions teammate Callum Hudson-Odoi has spoken of the Man City star's influence
14:37, 09 Oct 2019

On November 14 2012, England played Sweden in an international friendly in Stockholm. It was a game which would become memorable for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Puskas Award-winning bicycle kick over the helpless Joe Hart in a 4-2 win against the Three Lions. 

Headline-dominating Zlatan was at it again. 

But the same match provided one Raheem Sterling with his first international cap at the age of just 17, with the Liverpool attacker playing 85 minutes on the right wing in Roy Hodgson’s set-up.

Almost seven years later, Sterling knows a thing or two about stealing the front and back pages.

It can be easy to overlook the fact that this is a footballer still in his early 20s. He is an England stalwart, a fundamental cog in the Manchester City machine and now, arguably most importantly, an icon to be revered by the next generation of footballers.

“English football does not often produce this kind of player,” proclaimed Guardian journalist Barney Ronay at the tail end of 2014. Sterling was still eight months away from exiting his teens.

How right Ronay was.

That same year, Sterling was awarded the Golden Boy trophy as Europe’s Best Under-21s player, and to say he has gone from strength to strength would be an understatement. 

He has become every bit as much a boundary-traversing presence away from the pitch as he is a visually thrilling presence on it. The reverence younger players have for him became even more apparent this week as Sterling prepares to make his 54th England appearance. 

Advice from a genuine world-beater, who has been there and done that, has been priceless for the new wave of youngsters adorning the Three Lions shirt.  

“Raheem tells me to keep working hard, tells me how to get the goals, how to get the assists,” his England teammate and 18-year-old Chelsea starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi said in a pre-match press conference ahead of meetings with the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. 

“He'll tell me what are the best movements to get in the box when the balls are coming in, what is the best position to pick up possession.

“He obviously plays for a different team, so he doesn't have to do that, but he does because he wants everyone to do well.

For a person like that to help you, it's an amazing feeling. He gives you the best advice possible.

“I ask him: ‘How do you get all the goals you are getting, how do you work for the team, how do you make an impact in big games?’"

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At Liverpool, Sterling won back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards and, in an exciting triptych alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, narrowly missed out on the Premier League title to the team he would eventually join, Manchester City.

However, an early, memorable excerpt from the documentary ‘Being: Liverpool’ circulated of Sterling being scolded by the club’s then-manager Brendan Rodgers on the training pitch in his breakout season with the Reds. It helped cast early doubts about his character. 

Rodgers also criticised the player for purportedly taking nitrous oxide and being observed smoking a shisha pipe in his leisure time. And since then, he has been subjected to regular criticism about his personal life, including the inking of a gun tattoo on his lower leg in tribute to his father and buying a £15,000 guard dog.

His £49 million move from Merseyside to Manchester in 2015 was treated with scorn and cynicism, with particular attention on the new £100,000 weekly salary he would be granted. Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard expressed his disappointment in the player for his flirtation with City, though the Reds had reportedly offered him a similar contract. In Manchester, Sterling has consistently defied critics, evolving and developing on both a personal and professional level. 

At City, his improved scoring proficiency has seen him finish second in the scoring charts behind the club’s all-time top marksman, Sergio Aguero, for the past three seasons, passing a century of goals at club level along the way.

Each new interview conducted seems to involve him not just being encouraged to discuss his on-pitch artistry, but also his being targeting for tabloid fodder and issues of race.

In December 2018, Sterling stated his belief that newspapers helped "fuel racism", with the Black Collective of Media in Sport thanking him for raising the issue of how the media portrays black footballers and communities across the country.

Has Sterling’s voice allowed others to speak louder? We can't say for definite but what's clear is that his unabashed vocality is welcome and needed.

This week Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham have been forthright in their intended responses to potential incidents of racism, no doubt emboldened by Sterling's stance on the issue.

Sterling captained the Three Lions against the Netherlands for the first time on June 7 of this year, at the age of just 24. It was a special night, marking his 50th international cap, but how many think this will only be a one-off?

As Sterling continues to show maturity and a selflessness to mentor younger players in Gareth Southgate's set-up, he's stating his case to be a future captain of England. Leading from the front, on and off the pitch.

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