For all his talent and for all his youth, Raheem Sterling confesses to lacking confidence. At 19 he is man enough to make that surprising admission. And he was man enough, too, to do something about it.
This time last year, Sterling was out of the Liverpool team and searching for the form that had made him the most exciting prospect to appear at Anfield since a 17-year-old Michael Owen scored on his debut for the club.
“It made me reflect on what I needed to do if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be,” said Sterling, at Aintree for the launch of the Sims 4 game. “A better goals-to-game ratio is the aim for me now. If you score goals, you will get people talking about you.
“I don’t think I’m the most confident person but I have people around me who, while they don’t say I am the greatest thing in football, have a general belief in me. When I was out of the team, I sat down with my agent [Aidy Ward] and we did some video analysis of the best games I’d played in for the youth teams and at reserve and first-team level. It was about seeing what I did then and what I did when I was out of the team.
“When I got the ball in the reserves, within two touches I would turn and look to attack my opponent, whereas in the first team I was trying for the safer option. I needed to go back to basics. I needed to get defenders on the back foot again.”
Part of the process involved Sterling moving to Southport, which has become a colony for Merseyside footballers. “I have tried to block everything out,” he said. “I am still going to see my friends on days off but I have tried to just live, sleep and eat football as the manager [Brendan Rodgers] has told me to do. Going into training, coming home, going back into training – that’s been it for me over the last 12 months. I have had to make sacrifices and that has been a huge step forward.”
Nevertheless, Rodgers is aware that few football careers run on smooth, upward curves. The Liverpool manager believes a talent as rare as Sterling’s needs to be nurtured. Injuries and relentless football meant Owen’s career was essentially over by 26. Robbie Fowler was a year older when he left Anfield, never to really rediscover his touch.
“It has to be critical that in 10 years’ time Raheem is approaching his peak as opposed to having played his best games,” said Rodgers. “If he gets to 28 and has too many miles on the clock, he will be burned out. It is hard when you are such a good player, you keep performing and your club and country need you.”
For someone who did not start playing football seriously until he was 10, five years after he arrived in London from Jamaica with his mother, Sterling’s rise has been astonishingly swift.
“My mum got me into a Sunday League team but it was only when I was 14 playing for the under-16s at Queen’s Park Rangers that I realised it could be a dream for me and maybe then I could dream about playing for England.”
Within three years he was playing in the Premier League for Liverpool, within five he was at a World Cup. “That’s football for you,” said Sterling. “It changes within seconds.”
That he played in a World Cup while still a teenager is important. If Rodgers is right and he will peak in a decade, it gives Sterling what sportsmen crave but seldom get: time.
“To be involved in a massive tournament at my age was an incredible experience,” the teenager said. “I think it could be a huge thing for me to have that experience at such an early age. When I came on against Switzerland, it made me really relaxed.”
Sterling did not think he played well in Monday night’s 2-0 win over Switzerland. Yet the victory in Basel was perhaps England’s best performance under Roy Hodgson; sharp, incisive and delivered by a young, vibrant team. And Sterling had a key role in both Danny Welbeck’s goals.
Raheem Sterling’s a ‘Playful Creative’ according to The Sims 4 personality test. What’s your Sims 4 personality? Take the test and buy your copy of the game now at TheSims.com