Sterling must resolve future to revive form
Liverpool contract rebel is doing himself no favours, either on the pitch or off it
Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30
Not so long ago - at the most recent World Cup - it appeared that Raheem Sterling could lay legitimate claim to being England's most important player. Not now. Not any more. Not after the past 12 months. And not after this.
Now Sterling appears a player desperately in need of a rest and desperately in need of a resolution to his club future.
He needs to turn around the growing perceptions about him, his contract demands and where he sees himself next season, and settle things. He needs to sign up or make sure he moves on, because this cannot carry on for the 20-year-old. He is suffering. His form has collapsed.
An away friendly against the Republic of Ireland might have felt like the kind of fixture that could offer Sterling some solace from the maelstrom at his club, Liverpool, where he ended the season benched - deemed not in the right frame of mind - for the 6-1 capitulation against Stoke City as the club's campaign crumbled.
However, that did not take into account the huge following Liverpool have amongst the Irish supporters.
Sterling was booed relentlessly; the focus of their anger or, at least, their growing indifference. No other England player was targeted.
So has a tipping point been reached? There has not been this kind of barracking in Liverpool games, but will there be now if he ever pulls on the shirt again? On this evidence, at least, if any club offers close to £30m - never mind the £40m and more that might persuade Liverpool to sell - then the Fenway Sports Group should take it. And quick.
It did not help Sterling that the contest was so desperately poor, weak and anaemic that there needed to be something to stir the blood.
And so he joined Sepp Blatter and John Delaney, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland - who had accepted that €5 million (£3.6m) 'hush money' payment - as the focus of the fans' attention as the game meandered into a hollow nothingness.
It was dispiriting. Maybe it is too harsh to say so, given the timing of this game - the break from the end of the domestic season - but it really was that bad.
Jack Wilshere tried but largely failed and there was a debut for Jamie Vardy, but why was Charlie Austin not used?
Hodgson went back to his default position. This was little preparation for the Euro 2016 qualifier away against Slovenia next Sunday beyond a desire to make sure England did not lose. But, hey, they kept a clean sheet.
Did they look like scoring? Barely. Sterling saw a lot of the ball - partly because, on the other flank, Adam Lallana absented himself from involvement in proceedings - but it did not amount to much.
In the first half Robbie Brady, a makeshift left-back, was too aggressive for Sterling, rattling him on the jaw on one occasion, and in the second half, when he switched flanks, Seamus Coleman matched his speed.
Without having the pace to get away from his marker, Sterling was flummoxed. There was no guile; no awareness of what else he had to do. Every time Sterling had space, he wasted it.
His play has been as bad as the advice he has received in recent months from his agent, Aidy Ward, who will no doubt argue that the ends justify the means if he can drive through the move he and his client have been determined to secure.
But those clumsy efforts are now being matched by Sterling's clumsy play.
In the meantime, damage is being done, as Hodgson acknowledged.
"I think he's going through a bad time publicly," the England manager said. "He tries hard to shrug it off and let his football do the talking. He needed this game to realise he needs to work even harder still, develop a thicker skin."
Well, that might be one positive, even if Sterling's present behaviour demolishes the idea that he is already a tough cookie. He is out of sorts and seems almost pained in his unsure movement.
This is not the joyful forward who tore defences apart in Liverpool's improbably exciting title challenge in 2013-'14 and went to the World Cup in Brazil as such an important figure for England that Hodgson wanted to move Wayne Rooney to try to get the best out of him. Where did all that go? Lost only temporarily, surely.
He is, to repeat, only 20, even if his stance and the posture taken by his agent is more in keeping with an older player at the height of his powers - and earning capacity. There was always going to be a natural dip. It is just going on way too long now.
Hodgson kept Sterling on for far too long here. In truth, he was wrong to start with Sterling, who must now be in danger of losing his place for the qualifier on Sunday.
Theo Walcott appears a far sounder option on present form. At least one can hope Hodgson, who did not try to sugarcoat it, learnt something from yesterday, even if he suggested he would stick with the player.
"He's done some fantastic things for us and it will take a lot for me to lose faith in him," Hodgson said.
But not for a while. (© Daily Telegraph, London)