Gary Neville: No surprise Raheem Sterling wants bigger and better things elsewhere
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
Raheem Sterling has been in the eye of a storm this week following the revelation that he wants to leave Liverpool.
While there is a lot to be said about the way the story has developed, the harsh reality for the club is that this situation has been 15 years in the making.
When it comes to representing young players, the onus should be on protecting and supporting them - maintain your dignity and keep out of the headlines.
But has Sterling really let Liverpool down by suggesting he wants to leave or is he just a kid who wants to play football and win trophies?
There is a wider context to this story and it centres on how Liverpool have fallen from being from one of Europe's great superpowers to the extent that they are in danger of becoming a provincial club.
The prospect of losing Sterling will be a major concern for everybody connected to the club, but the uncomfortable truth is that this is nothing new for Liverpool.
Just look back over the past 10-15 years and count the number of players who have left Anfield to pursue bigger and better things elsewhere: Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez have all gone.
Steven Gerrard is also being allowed to leave and, although his circumstances are different, there is no way in a million years that Liverpool should be allowing him to pack up and sign for LA Galaxy.
If you compare Liverpool to Manchester United over the same period of time, I can think of only one player - Cristiano Ronaldo - who left when he wanted to go, rather than when Alex Ferguson wanted it to happen.
The comparison with United is valid because, regardless of the recent successes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, English football's biggest, most historic, successful and best supported clubs are Liverpool and United.
If you've been to any corner of Ireland, Scandinavia, Malta, Thailand or wherever, the red shirts of Liverpool and United vastly outnumber those of every other club.
But while United have been happy to shout from the rooftops about how big they are and promote the legend and mythology of the club on a global scale, for years Liverpool seem to have been firmly stuck in their own mud.
Liverpool have begun to realise the commercial value of their brand on a worldwide basis, but they are years behind the biggest European clubs and, for me, their problems - which have been given a public face this week by the Sterling situation - are a direct result of that failure to think beyond the confines of their city.
Let me give you an example which highlights the difference between Liverpool and Manchester.
When Gerrard was preparing for his final game at Anfield last week, Jamie Carragher told me that whenever Steven goes out in Liverpool he simply cannot escape the attention or go about his business without being aware of the suffocating pressure that comes with being a Liverpool player in the city.
I spent almost 20 years playing for United and, like the rest of my team-mates at Old Trafford, could walk through Manchester quite easily without feeling as though I was living in a goldfish bowl.
I can't think of any United or City players who would socialise or go for a meal in Liverpool, but I know of several Liverpool or Everton players who do exactly that in Manchester.
Liverpool has an incredibly community-minded mentality and in many ways that spirit, pride, passion and togetherness is one of the city's great strengths.
I joked with Jamie last Monday that, if Andy Burnham ends up as Labour leader and then Prime Minister, Jamie would be announced as Defence Minister, Kenny Dalglish Scottish Secretary, Ian Rush in charge of Wales, HS2 going direct to Liverpool, and the Trident nuclear deterrent protecting that city only.
It was a backhanded compliment about the unity of the city and how Liverpudlians will always defend themselves and fight passionately for their beliefs.
It is a very emotional city and, again, in many ways this is a strength, but for Liverpool Football Club, all of those qualities have become weaknesses which have contributed to the position they now find themselves in with Sterling.
Take Anfield for example. It is a wonderful old stadium, with a fantastic history and atmosphere, but when I drive towards it through the narrow streets which surround it, you just feel that it is in the wrong location and that it is another symbol of Liverpool looking to the past rather than the future.
I have lost count of the times Liverpool have unveiled plans for a new stadium at Stanley Park, only to end up staying at Anfield because of the history of the place and the fervour of the Kop.
In the early 1990s when United made their move, Liverpool should have been on their coat tails.
But Anfield has held them back because every other big club - with the exception of Chelsea, who are owned by a Russian billionaire - have moved forward already, either by vastly increasing their current stadium or building a new one.
The emotional ties are given too much weight - that emotion played its part in the performance that led to Crystal Palace winning at Anfield in Gerrard's farewell game last Saturday - and they are not helping Liverpool.
Arsenal left Highbury, another famous, traditional old ground, to move into the 21st century at the Emirates, City left Maine Road for the Etihad and, in Europe, the clubs who jostled for European Cup glory with Liverpool in the '80s and beyond have all put the past behind them and moved on.
Bayern Munich have a new stadium, Ajax have a new stadium, Juventus have a new stadium, while United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are playing in huge arenas which have moved with the times.
With five European Cup triumphs to their name, it is these clubs that Liverpool should be neck and neck with.
Only now are Liverpool increasing the size of Anfield, but will it enable them to close the gap enough for them to compete with the top clubs and prevent players like Sterling wanting to leave?
Liverpool need a visionary with the ambition to take the club into the 21st century. They even decide transfers by committee.
How can that be an efficient, clean process with clear accountability?
Great football clubs like Liverpool will never go away, but they need to find a way to arrest the slide and make themselves a team that players want to play for rather than one they try to leave in search of bigger things elsewhere.
If Sterling leaves, then that will be another star player who has decided that Liverpool are a club who are unable to match their ambitions.
I might be the last person that Liverpool fans want to hear this from, an outsider who played for their biggest rivals, but these are things that need saying.
Despite my United past, I have enormous respect and admiration for Liverpool Football Club, but it is time to put the past aside.
If they can get it right and look beyond the confines and restrictions that lie within their own city, Liverpool can remain one of the world's most successful football clubs on and off the pitch.
In that event, Sterling and the others that have wanted to leave would be banging on the door to sign for them. (© Daily Telegraph, London)