Raheem Sterling: Brinkmanship leaves Liverpool youngster’s reputation teetering on the edge

The Last Word: Raheem Sterling is a strong character but misguided

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Tom Walley is renowned as an old-school youth coach, a disciplinarian not averse to administering a clip around the ear of a recalcitrant teenaged footballer. He devised the Dustbin Run, in a field behind his house in Hertfordshire, for boys like Raheem Sterling.

Asked to provide informal guidance in the months before Sterling moved from QPR to Liverpool at the age of 15, Walley was enraptured by his natural talent, but harboured doubts about the depth of his character.

The Dustbin Run consisted of 300 metre shuttles between refuse containers, with less than 30 seconds recovery. It was a basic form of bleep test, which defined physical and mental resilience. Participants ran until they retched.


Sterling was no different. Midway through one series, he sank to the rough ground, spent. Walley towered over him, and ordered him to continue. He did so, slowly, silently. When the boy completed the sequence, the coach knew he had found “a bit of purple, a bit of quality”.

He once felt the same way about another boy at Arsenal, whom he had turned from a left winger into the finest left-back of his generation. Ashley Cole reveres his former coach; he understands the logic of his tough love and the magnitude of his debt to him.

No-one at Liverpool doubts Sterling’s strength of character, despite the acidic, mutually demeaning dispute about his future. Yet these are his Ashley Cole moments, which will forge perceptions of his personality to his enduring detriment.

Just as the myth of “Cashley” was created by Cole’s infamous autobiography, in which he railed against the insult of being offered £55,000 a week, Sterling will suffer grievously from a shifting narrative of confused complaint, convenient fiction and cartoonish aggression.

His faith in the bovine approach of his representative, Aidy Ward, is misplaced. This is not convulsive criticism, pandering to the stereotype of a feckless footballer. This is not about expecting a young, black, working-class man to know his place, as some have suggested. It is neither subtle racism nor paternalism.

It is about standards of behaviour, common decency in a situation which has been mishandled so badly it has become symbolic of a game without a moral compass. The issues it raises are wide and profoundly important.

Sterling's agent Aidy Ward has been vocal in his push to get Sterling a move

Ward has inflicted grievous damage on an already conflicted profession. How can agents argue for self-regulation and against limits on their fees, when he is treating the negotiating process with such contempt?  

Agents now have greater power to shape the news agenda than clubs, who lack sophistication and nuance in dealing with the media. The briefing in Sterling’s case has not been one-sided, but the undercurrent of sympathy for Ward has been striking, difficult to reconcile.

Liverpool’s weakness is another indication of a changing landscape. Gary Neville’s point, that losing Sterling would be significant, as a consequence of an introspective provincial institution, is well made. It is all too easy to forget the boy who became a commodity.

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

Rodgers has remained defiant in not letting Sterling move

The St Raphz Soldiers, a so-called Blood gang, fought the Suspect Gang from the adjoining Stonebridge estate. Violence escalated; police reported that Yardie drug barons had ordered Jamaican hit-men to end factional fighting among crack-cocaine dealers in the area. 

Sterling failed to settle in mainstream education, and was statemented by social services, but overcame anger-management issues after football became his release. He was sustained by the strength of his mother, Nadine, and the kindness of strangers.

He has a well-developed social conscience, and supports two primary schools in Jamaica. He doesn’t need sermons about loyalty, but he does need to pause, and pull back from the precipice.

Lampard to be admired

Frank Lampard devoted part of his last week in English football to promoting awareness of dementia, the condition which consumed his grandmother.

He spoke movingly on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Society, which used him to humanise a disease which claims a new victim every three minutes.

It was typical Lampard: earnest, eloquent, effective. He has authenticity as an ambassador because of his natural dignity and self-evident determination to make the most of himself.

Frank Lampard will move to the MLS

Should he wish to apply his formidable powers of application on his return from the United States, he will become one of the pre-eminent managers of his generation.

Though it seems strange, he will say farewell today in the wrong shade of blue, that of Manchester City instead of Chelsea, the warmth of the response will cut across tribal boundaries.

He will resist the comparison, since professional respect is fundamental to his behaviour and beliefs, but it is natural to wonder how better served Raheem Sterling would be if he had him as a mentor.

Lampard knows his worth – we once agreed to disagree, loudly, when he described his decision to reject a weekly wage of £130,000 as a simple desire to “put bread on my family’s table” – but also understands wealth doesn’t define him.

He is a well-rounded human being, who has earned a lifetime’s admiration and understanding.

Bannister worth more

One of life’s cruel ironies is that, at 86, Sir Roger Bannister has Parkinson’s Disease. He became a prominent neurologist after achieving sporting immortality as the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile.

The shoes he wore that day, at Iffley Road in 1954, were made of gossamer-thin black leather, with spikes honed by a grindstone. It emerged this week they are to be auctioned at Christie’s in September for a range of Sir Roger’s charities.

Sir Roger Bannister poses for a photograph in 2007

The reserve price on such a historical artefact is apparently less than £50,000. One trusts another nought will be added before they are sold to the highest bidder.