Raheem Sterling's already a Wembley legend

After growing up in the national stadium's shadow, Liverpool's 17-year-old is now in the England squad. Sam Wallace finds those who guided his rise

Sam Wallace
Saturday 15 September 2012 02:27

From the school field at Copland Community School the glass and steel of the new Wembley Stadium, less than a mile away, looms high over the rows of houses that surround this patch of greenery in north-west London. The national stadium, that £757m temple to elite football in England, is just a few minutes walk up Wembley High Road although it seems to belong to another world.

Not for one teenager who played his last game for Copland's formidable school teams just three years ago. On Tuesday, the 17-year-old Raheem Sterling sat on the bench for England's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, the latest development in what even Roy Hodgson described as the teenager's "meteoric" rise. Figuratively speaking, Sterling has come a long way in a very short space of time but those who know him well say that he has been the best footballer in Wembley for years.

Sterling's last game for Copland was in November 2009, in one of the fiercely competitive five-a-side tournaments that are hosted by the big football schools in Brent, the local London borough. By then the £1m deal to take him from Queens Park Rangers' academy to Liverpool had been agreed and, even though he was still a month shy of his 15th birthday, Sterling was already one of the hottest teenage properties in the country.

His former teacher Paul Lawrence, who is in charge of Copland's football teams, can remember asking Sterling whether he wanted to play that day. "There was never any doubt on his side that he wanted to play. By then he was so well-known in the area that lots of players just wanted to kick him up in the air. But that didn't make any difference, we still won the tournament with him in the team. In the new year, he moved to Liverpool."

Sterling, along with one of his sisters, is now finishing his schooling in Liverpool where he and his mother Nadine have moved since his transfer. It has been an astonishing story for a family who left their home in the Maverley district of Jamaica's capital Kingston in 2002 and settled in the St Raphael's estate in Neasden, which nestles between the unlovely North Circular road and Wembley Stadium.

For Lawrence, his teenage prodigy is an example to the boys who come to Copland of what can be achieved, although they are well aware that Sterling has just taken his first steps in the professional game. The school itself has had some rough times in recent years, not least the allegations of fraud against former headteacher Sir Alan Davies and the familiar problems associated with London schools in deprived areas.

The high-quality output of footballers, however, is not in doubt – testament to the dedication of Lawrence and an example of the crucial role schools play in producing elite young players. On the wall of Lawrence's office in the PE department is a picture of an 11-year-old Sterling in the school's blue kit holding the Brent Cup. "Man of the match Raheem Sterling" reads the line above the picture "[for] scoring a hat-trick and making the other two goals".

The competition was for Year 8 teams across Brent, although at the time Sterling was in Year 7 and had been moved up a year. "I remember one of the teachers asking me who the best footballer in Year 7 was," Lawrence said. "'I said Raheem Sterling'. He said to me, 'And who's the best player in Year 8?' I thought about it and said: 'Raheem Sterling'. I could have played him three years above his age group and he would have been exceptional."

Lawrence first encountered Sterling after the boy's sister Lakima mentioned that her brother, still at junior school, was a keen footballer. Lawrence invited him to a training session after school and was incredulous at what he saw. "He scored two goals and was just running rings around the older boys. I said to his sister, 'He's a very good player, you have to make sure that he comes to Copland next year'.

"The following September I was searching the lists of students for his name but he wasn't there. I asked Lakima where he was. She said he was still only 10 and would be coming the following year. He was even younger when he had played in that training session than I had imagined he was."

As we walk across the schoolyard, Lawrence introduces me to Tee Jay Duncan, a full-back at Luton Town's academy. Reece Mitchell, a very promising 16-year-old at Chelsea who has represented England at junior levels, is another old boy.

The former Arsenal full-back Kerrea Gilbert was a Copland footballer. For boys from the area's tough estates, who love football, Lawrence is clearly a well-respected figure who provides the opportunity to play in organised, properly refereed games.

At Copland, if a boy's disciplinary record slips then he is not permitted to play football but Lawrence never had any problems of that kind with Sterling. "He is one of those players who has that will to win," he said. "He is brave and he works very hard. He understands the game. In general, he is very unselfish although you would expect someone with that ability to be greedy. A lot of the time I had to encourage him to be greedier with the ball."

Steve Gallen, QPR's youth development manager, remembers a player who was "devastated" to lose a game even in the club's Under-12s team. "He was this little man with so much talent but if we lost he would be inconsolable. I would take him aside and say 'Look, don't worry, you played well, you scored, focus on your game'. I don't think he ever listened to me!"

When Gallen was appointed Under-14s coach at QPR he brought the 11-year-old Sterling into the side. When he was appointed to the Under-18s, he agonised over whether to bring the player, then 14, into the team and quickly realised he could not afford not to. "Although we tried to discourage it, there was a sense of embarrassment for the kid who was dropped. Then when the boys saw how good Raheem was they realised there was no shame in losing your place to him."

Gallen worked hard to try to keep Sterling at the club and he acknowledges that there were "external people" outside of QPR and Liverpool who were "pushing" for the transfer to go through. "His mum Nadine is a lovely woman. He was living in an area that was quite tough and there were kids around there who could be jealous. He was getting on the bus to come to matches.

"At that time we just didn't have the support network at the club to pick him up and take him to training. We have that now. Believe me, I did everything I could. Not just because it was my job but also because I am a QPR fan. On the flipside I'm delighted he is doing so well. We're proud of him."

Lawrence, 52, himself a good non-league footballer who still plays at a decent standard, found himself approached on a coaching course at Lilleshall by Kenny Dalglish, who asked him about Sterling (right). "He wanted to know how good I thought he was. We had just played in a coaches' match and I had done quite well, so I just said to Kenny, 'Well, he's better than me'. He shot back: 'Better than you at 14?' I said, 'No better than me now'."

There is another interesting link to Liverpool's most famous Jamaican-born footballer, John Barnes. In the early 1980s, Lawrence played alongside Barnes at local side Sudbury Court FC and was one of those who persuaded the then-teenager to go for a trial at Watford, where Lawrence was playing at the time, under the highly-successful youth-team coach, and former Watford player, Tom Walley.

Sterling was a very able 1500m runner who was Brent schools champion although the level of competition meant that he never won the local 100m title. "It was Raheem who wanted to be in the 100m even though I used to say to him, 'Nah, the 1500m is your thing'," Lawrence said. "He is very quick but it is important to say that he is a footballer who happens to be quick; not a sprinter we turned into a footballer. The pace is there if he needs to use it."

When Lawrence sat down to watch Tuesday's England game with a few mates they joked that they did not want to see him in tears. "I wouldn't have been able to hold it back if he had come on," he said. Lawrence still speaks to his former student regularly, most recently after his appearance for Liverpool against Manchester City.

Gallen said that Sterling returned to QPR's academy for a visit on a day off in February and mucked in with his former team-mates as they were dispatched to find footballs that had gone missing in the undergrowth. "It's funny, I was watching the little man sitting on the bench on Tuesday," Gallen said. "I wondered to myself how many people would know that his school is just 300 yards away. He looked like he always did with us, like he had just walked round the corner with his school bag and got changed, ready to play."

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