Italy vs England: Raheem Sterling remains a step ahead of flash Harry Kane as a once troubled schoolboy makes another statement

This is not another paean to Kane but an appreciation of Sterling, who has already lived through the surreal experience of being hailed as an overnight sensation

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He is a gilded youth, a beacon of hope and the symbol of an emerging generation of international footballers. He was thrilled by his first England goal on Friday night, which he promised will "live with me for a long time".

Park the preconceptions right there. This is not another paean to Harry Kane but an appreciation of Raheem Sterling, who has already lived through the surreal experience of being hailed as an overnight sensation.

The parallels with the Tottenham striker are admittedly uncanny and undoubtedly alluring, but Sterling represents the next stage of Kane’s career, which remains some way off.  His talent has marinaded gently in club and international football instead of being bunged on to the barby.

Sterling, 16 months younger than Kane at 20, has returned to Liverpool for treatment on the toe injury which required an injection after he had scored in England’s latest facile win in European Championship qualifying. He has won only 14 caps, starting nine matches, but will be much missed against Italy in Turin on Tuesday.

 

He was arguably a more fitting man of the match against Lithuania than Danny Welbeck, excelling in a manner which suggests his role as Liverpool’s right wing back requires immediate revision. He emphasised the pace and positivity of Roy Hodgson’s team, which cannot be solely explained by the poverty of the opposition.

Hodgson said: “Both Sterling and Welbeck were fantastic in the roles we want them to play. That pace, the ability to beat people and make things happen, is very important. Luckily we’ve also got quality centre forwards in Rooney, Sturridge and now Harry Kane. It is no use trying to hide their light under a bushel.”

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Sterling has also pulled out with injury

Using an old scout’s trick, of watching Sterling in isolation, was instructive. The eye was taken by his familiar straight-backed scurrying and sinuous dribbling, augmented by the occasional nutmeg. He ran with the ball 11 times, instigating panic and punishment, which was administered slyly and often late.

Sterling switched wings from right to left for 15-minute spells. He made steeply angled runs across the box to make space for others and looked to use his speed of thought and movement to get in behind the defence.

His strength in shielding the ball from two opponents midway in the attacking half enabled him to protect possession before he played in Welbeck to set up Wayne Rooney’s opening goal. Sterling’s goal was simplicity itself, a decisive late run between two defenders and side-footed finish.

The drag back, brief sprint and sublimely weighted far-post cross which created the goal which confirmed the Kane Effect was unfairly overlooked in the clamour to celebrate a young player whose Everyman qualities elevate and engage.

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Hodgson is without number of first-choice players

There is a freshness to Hodgson’s evolving senior group, which will hopefully not be contaminated by Sterling’s contractual wrangle with Liverpool. The dispute threatens to become a modern morality play, with attitudes hardening and assumptions becoming more damaging.

By rejecting a deal worth £100,000 a week, Sterling is in danger of being branded as greedy and ungrateful in the sort of propaganda war that rarely produces an outright winner. The stand-off between an assertive agent, Aidy Ward, and club owners who understand the emotional impact of football’s absurd pay scales is dangerous. Given the intensity of debate, the magnitude of Sterling’s opportunity and the importance of the broader debate about the development of young home-grown players, it is timely to dwell on his direction of travel.

Sterling’s is not a straightforward story. He was born into one of Jamaica’s most marginalised communities and transplanted, at the age of six, into a similar Yardie-influenced culture on the St Raphael’s estate in the shadow of Wembley stadium.

He was sustained by the strength of his mother and the release of a game which underpinned his fragile self-esteem. Joe Gallen, currently Wolves’ assistant manager, enticed him to sign for QPR at the age of 11 by buying him football boots and a tracksuit from Brent Cross shopping centre.

There are few fairytales in football, but the progress of a statemented schoolboy to a teenage millionaire comes close. Sterling doesn’t need sermons about loyalty, but he does require Brendan Rodgers to operate with the emotional intelligence for which he is rightly renowned.

There is no need for disruption, however lucrative, at this stage in his career. Rodgers has developed Sterling into a dynamic, modern player who is comfortable in a range of attacking positions. His managerial ethos, which stresses self-improvement, is ideally suited to Sterling’s situation.

His career at club and international level has been accelerated by regular football in a supportive environment. Those closest to him should be careful what they wish for, since England now have a surfeit of heroes.

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