There is an emblem of Raheem Sterling’s significance to Liverpool on a wall at the club’s academy. Images of the shirts worn by some of the place’s great youth products are depicted there – from Carragher right back to Ian Callaghan. Sterling’s ‘31’ sits between the Steven Gerrard ‘8’ and Robbie Fowler ‘23’.
“It wasn’t there when I was here originally,” he said, as he went back to the Academy, in Kirkby, on Thursday. “When I first walked in I was like, ‘What’s that doing up there?’ Obviously it is nice to see things like that. I couldn’t stop staring at it first…”
It’s been a bumpy few months for Sterling, playing for a Liverpool side who are struggling to rediscover last season’s panache and also finding himself embroiled in controversy after Roy Hodgson chose to make public the player’s disclosure that he had felt tired before England’s game against Estonia. The 19-year-old found himself on the receiving end of some opprobrium over that. In this, his first discussion of that England episode, he offers contrition that other young players would be less comfortable with, given that he probably imagined his conversation with Hodgson was private. “I just love playing football for club or country,” he says. “If anything I said got taken the wrong way I am sorry about that but it doesn’t matter where it is I am happy to play football.”
You might say that’s his media training at work but it is certainly a different Sterling we see from the subject of that famous scene from the Being:Liverpool documentary, who had been giving Brendan Rodgers some backchat. “You say ‘steady’ to me again when I say something you, you’ll be on the first plane back,” Rodgers told him. “I didn’t say steady, I said…” Sterling started to reply. “You know what you said, I know what you said,” Rodgers says.
There is one of two ways a player’s career can go at a juncture like that and it still seemed to hang in the balance a year later, despite Sterling’s strong early months in Rodgers’ first Liverpool season. His integral role for Liverpool and England makes it easy to forget that he was a bystander in the first half of his club’s fine 2013/14 campaign, starting only one league game before December 1 - and a mere three in the entire calendar year. He said at the time that he still didn’t feel he was a Liverpool player.
“When I [said that] I never felt I was permanently in the first team because I had a lot of work still to do,” he reflects now. “My main focus then was purely to be in the manager’s plans for the future. The moment I realised was… well, I wasn’t in the team at the start of last season and not playing as much but I knew I could develop and would get the chance to really turn things around if I got a game. That was my big moment – being on the sidelines; on the bench.”
Very many of the academy coaches will tell you that 18 can be the make-or-break year, when we learn whether a player like Sterling is destined for Liverpool or Luton. It can hinges on a player’s propensity to grow up. Rodgers simply describes his surprise at suddenly found himself in conversation of a different sort with his teenage player. “One of the early signs for me was when he used to come into the office to talk – I never thought he was listening. A lot of it was concentration,” the manager says. “Now I see his eyes engage and he is taking (what you say) on board. Over time and with experience he has really learned to grow up. There is not one specific thing but he is like a young man and is gaining from the experiences every day. It also helps being around players and those who carry themselves well. He is a clever, intelligent boy who learns quickly.”
How Liverpool need him now. As they prepare this weekend to retrace painful steps to Crystal Palace, where last season’s surrender of a 3-0 lead put paid to their title hopes, Rodgers agrees he is facing the toughest challenge of his two and a half year Liverpool career. “Absolutely. There’s no getting away from that. I need to find the solutions and find them quickly for us to improve.”
Sterling, more important than ever with Daniel Sturridge’s prolonged absence, said he has spoken to his agent about a new contract and hopes something can be done soon. But on his trip back to the Academy – along with the rest of the full first team squad and Liverpool Ladies, to inspire, educate and encourage the club’s young players and reinforce the sense of Liverpool being one club, on Thursday – he wanted to look back and reflect. ”I am happy to be here for as long as possible,” he said. “Like the big names that are on that wall.”
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