Of the dozens of hopeful young aspiring footballers that join Premier League academies each year, almost none of those will be handed professional contracts.
Of those few that do manage to finish top of the pile to graduate as a professional footballer, almost none will go on to play regularly at the highest level, indeed many will have dropped out of the game entirely in just a few short years. These are the harsh realities of modern day professional football, a dream career for thousands, but one only a very few will have the privilege to enjoy.
By the time Raheem Sterling signed for Liverpool from Queens Park Rangers as a precociously talented 15 year old, he would have already seen many of his friends discarded by QPR as not good enough, and in his five years at Liverpool, likely saw many more who were deemed not good enough to the make grade at an elite academy.
Others will have seen their careers painfully ended by injury before they ever even got fully started. By the time young footballers are handed their debuts, they have been made hyper aware of the fleeting nature of their chosen career path.
Many young footballers who were tipped to make it to the very top now find themselves free agents, their first contracts turning out to also potentially be their last – players like Michael Johnson, thrust into the spotlight only to find that the hype is premature. The smart ones have something to fall back on, an alternative career, or money saved and invested, but many crash and burn.
Sterling knows all this, so is it any surprise to see him cashing in now? Angling for the best possible contract while the spotlight was on him and interested clubs circled may have been cynical, but it was also thoroughly sensible considering Sterling, like any footballer, is only ever a split second, a bad tackle or an awkward fall from losing his career.
Despite this context, Sterling has been lambasted in the media, painted as the arrogant, money-grabbing diva who cares nothing for his club or their fans – a character that the public loves to portray young footballers as. Liverpool legends past and present have queued up to criticise the young forward.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Gerrard spoke of his ‘disappointment’ in Sterling, comparing his perceived lack of professionalism unfavourably with young winger Jordon Ibe. Graeme Souness has called Sterling ‘far from the finished article’ and asserted that there is ‘nowhere better’ for him than Liverpool. Jamie Carragher in an outburst, told Sterling to ‘keep your mouth shut’, questioning the audacity of ‘a 20-year-old kid to be taking on Liverpool Football Club over a contract.’
The question these Liverpool greats should be asking though is why their best young player, and arguably their best player of any age, is trying to leave and why his contract situation was allowed to reach this point. Sterling was vital during Liverpool’s title challenge in the 2013/14 season, one of the star turns alongside Sturridge and Luis Suarez in a potent, swaggering front three.
Many of those who have criticised Sterling and the way he angled for his Manchester City transfer have accused him of not repeating that form this season, and asserted that if Sterling wants to win trophies, his focus should be on applying himself at Liverpool. However, the fact is that last season Brendan Rodgers’ tinkering made it impossible for Sterling to hit top form. In the past two seasons, Sterling’s best performances came behind the striker in the number ten role, or alternatively out on the wing.
Last season though, Sterling too often found himself moved around, employed up front, or even as an auxiliary wing back. Employed out of position and without a consistent role in the side, it is hardly surprising that Sterling at times struggled to impose himself last term.
Nevertheless, the new Manchester City forward was still arguably Liverpool’s best player that season. Coutinho won plaudits as he hit a spell of form at the same time as Sterling’s contract stand-off was playing out in the press, but it is worth remembering that a few games aside, the Brazilian had cut a frustrated figure at Anfield for much of the season.
Despite the sporadic way in which he was deployed for a Liverpool who struggled to meet expectations, Sterling still had a direct hand in 18 goals last season. The winger has already more than paid back the £600,000 Liverpool paid to prise him from QPR, and that is a key point. Despite having been at the club for a few years, it must be remembered that Sterling is not a Liverpudlian, not a homegrown player – so why should he be held to some high standard of loyalty?
One poor season by a player is often enough to see them moved on by a club, so why should a player show any more loyalty to a club that is struggling? Fans will of course be irked, it is never nice to see your best players sold, especially after they have engineered that move, but how many Liverpool fans were criticising Lovren or Lallana last season as they forced through transfers from Southampton?
There is a hierarchy to these things – Liverpool poach players from the likes of Southampton, Manchester City poach players from the likes of Liverpool, and Real Madrid poach players from the likes of Manchester City. Frustrating that may be, but it’s the way of modern football, and as much as the press may like to rile up outrage, at the end of day, Sterling owes Liverpool nothing.