Raheem Sterling: 'Rodgers warned me it is time to deliver on new deal'
Liverpool recently rewarded their precocious 18-year-old winger Raheem Sterling with a 2,000 per cent pay rise. But, as he tells Tim Rich, his new riches came with a caveat
The trouble with golden boys is that the glitter soon fades. One of this month's abiding images was of the puffy, freshly bearded face of Michael Johnson, the blond midfielder who was once Manchester City's great hope for the future. At 24, a career pockmarked by injury, depression and spells at the Priory ended with a short statement: "I would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life."
It was footballers such as Johnson that the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, had in mind when he was negotiating with Raheem Sterling's representatives over a new contract. Rodgers had made his reputation in youth football and had seen too many young men, particularly young English men, sign deals for big money and then disappear into a vortex of their own making.
"He has actually spoken to me about that from day one, from the start of the season until now," said Sterling, who turned 18 last month and might be the best young player to grace Anfield since Steven Gerrard made his debut. ''When you sign your contract, don't relax, you've got to push on to the next level because you don't want to disappear until nobody hears of you again."
Perhaps that is why the club allowed one of the few genuinely interesting scenes in their documentary Being Liverpool to be broadcast. In it, Sterling interrupts Rodgers during a team talk on their summer tour of the United States, leading the Liverpool manager to retort: "You need to improve your attitude. If you say 'steady' to me again when I say something to you, you'll be on the first plane back."
The lesson appears to have been learned. "The clip didn't do me any favours. It gave people the impression that I am a massive-time kid, and it's nothing like that," said Sterling, who in the flesh is articulate and self-deprecating. "The manager doesn't want young players thinking they are better than they are and he has put his stamp on me. He was laying down the law."
FA Cup romance is only supposed to attach itself to clubs such as Oldham, Liverpool's opponents tomorrow, the roofs of their rusting stands smeared with snow. Sterling, however, grew up almost literally in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, having moved with his mother at the age of five from Maverley, a tough area of Jamaica whose corrugated- iron roofs and breadfruit trees were stripped by Hurricane Sandy in October.
"The school was literally two minutes away from the stadium," he said of his London upbringing. "When it was being built I used to ride around there on my BMX, just circling the area. At first there was nothing there, then one day there was an arch and then on it went until it was finished. I never tried to sneak in but there was a little market there on a Sunday. That was the closest I got to it.
"For the first FA Cup final there between Chelsea and Manchester United they gave free tickets to the gifted and talented kids at the school. When I got to the stadium it was just beautiful. From that moment, I wanted to play there. It would be a dream come true."
That he would try to fulfil the dream in a Liverpool shirt was not obvious. He had no family connections with Merseyside, and some dazzling attacking performances for Queens Park Rangers youth teams had led to a host of suitors. The difference was that others sent their youth-team coaches to speak to him. When he came to talk to Liverpool, Sterling met Rafa Benitez.
"They made much more of an effort," said Sterling, who suddenly found himself going to school in Rainhill, just outside St Helens. "From a busy city to seeing cows and sheep, it was a bit crazy, but the people were friendly."
For a teenager, however talented – Sterling's Premier League debut against Manchester City shimmered with electricity – the home dressing-room of any football club is not an overly friendly place. "There are one or two who make a real effort, like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Luis Suarez," he said. "But it was a bit daunting. I don't say much even now, but then it was pretty scary. You don't even want to look at them.
"At first it felt natural to come on and just express yourself but now I am expected to be more tactical and think more," he added. "That is more of a challenge. But I don't model myself on any other footballer. That would be a crime."
As he negotiated his new £40,000-a-week, five-year contract that gave him an above-inflation rise of 2,000 per cent, there were accusations of greed and that he was holding out for a return to London. His agents let it be known he was "homesick".
There were also stories about the number of children he has fathered. He seemed like a typical young footballer about to jump into his Hummer wearing dark glasses. Sterling said he was "always going to sign for Liverpool" and it should be pointed out that he could have made considerably more had he gone back to London. And for the record, he has one child, seven-month-old Melody Rose.
It is not hard to discover that his mother, Nadine, is the lodestone of his life, his biggest single influence. "She attends every game she can," he said. "I try to spend as much time with my family as I can. My mum has sat me down and told me this is an important time in my life and I need to be grateful.
"So I am just taking it slowly and trying not to be overwhelmed by what has happened. She tells me to spend more time at home and the more I do that, the less trouble I will get into."
Oldham Athletic v Liverpool is on ITV1 today, kick-off 4pm
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