Comment: Raheem Sterling has made himself toxic - and he really did not have to
The political poison which has accompanied Sterling's move from Liverpool to Manchester City could easily have been avoided
There have been plenty of lucid arguments put forward defending Raheem Sterling’s desire to leave Liverpool for Manchester City.
None of them bear much resemblance to the ever-changeable explanations he’s presented since his claim for a £150,000-a-week deal was rejected last season - nor did they address the reasons why everyone at Anfield was upset with him - but they served their purpose.
The trick when placing yourself on the side of reason is to present the counter-arguments as illogical, based on the hysteria of fanaticism rather than experience or wisdom.
Thus, all those accusing Sterling of disloyalty to the Liverpool badge need to put aside their allegiances and recognise football is a business. This is all very true, but those hammering the point are in an argument with themselves.
Take a poll of Liverpool fans (and the ex-players with the audacity to have an opinion) and not too many were angry Sterling was considering leaving Anfield. Because of the fee, they’re even less concerned now he is gone.
From day one – aside from those on the fringes who could be quite easily ignored if it was not so convenient for ‘Team Raheem’ to give them a greater voice – it has been the modus operandi that was the cause of the ire against Sterling, not the eventual outcome.
If a player wants to leave your club, so be it. That’s the nature of the business. It’s an unhealthy trend Liverpool need to address because they are losing at least one first team player a year these days.
What has been strange about this transaction is how determined Sterling and his representative were to go to war to get him out when dignified diplomacy would have achieved the same result.
When he sits down with his biographer (probably in a year or two), Sterling might ask himself what it was all for?
What purpose did it serve agitating for a £49m transfer when – with sound advice – he’d have had it anyway without the need for the ill-timed interviews, political manoeuvrings by his agent and constant attempts to lay hand grenades and act as a daily surveillance system at Melwood?
Instead, he’s got what he wanted with the additional, entirely avoidable extra of having his reputation sullied.
There is an alternative reality in which Sterling is told at the end of last season how much Manchester City wanted him and how much it would take to sign him. In this parallel universe the perception is Sterling is still willingly negotiating a new deal, only for City to intervene with an offer that can’t be refused. The England winger still ends up The Etihad.
He sits at a press conference table alongside Manuel Pellegrini expressing ‘surprise’ at the speed of events, his shock that Liverpool negotiated a price with their north-west rivals, and his agonising decision to leave a club that will always be in his heart.
Would we believe him? Maybe not, but amid the accusations of insincerity there would have been greater focus on Liverpool for not resolving his contract dispute quicker, leaving themselves with no choice but to accept City’s bid as they lost Champions League football and could never match the salary offer.
Instead, Sterling’s route to City is a hapless political performance of Ed Milliband proportions, while possessing all the PR clout of W1A’s Siobhan Sharpe.
It was four days before last December’s trip to Old Trafford those close to Sterling decided to make it known Liverpool’s contract offer – at that time £90,000 a week based on certain incentives (it increased later) – was undervaluing their client.
That was back in the days when it was okay to say it was about money before the message was dispatched to the player’s advocators to change strategy.
Fast-forward a few months and the now notorious BBC interview collided with the build-up to Liverpool’s trip to Arsenal, a game which proved to be Brendan Rodgers’ side’s last chance to make the top four. Again, a patronising ‘how dare they?’ was aimed at Liverpool supporters who were a tad angry at the opportunistic, calculated scheduling of the television appearance.
In the meantime, there were counter attacks aimed at Anfield ‘leaks’, some of which – particularly last week when Rodgers was maliciously and tactically accused of letting it be known Sterling did not wish to go on Liverpool’s summer tour – took duplicity to new depths.
First it was about Liverpool being too slow to make an offer; then not offering enough; then for indicating they would never offer enough; then for playing him at wing-back a couple of times; then for selling Suarez and not keeping Gerrard; then for not playing Sterling against Real Madrid; then for keeping Rodgers as manager.
Eventually, we did get a perfectly valid reason. City made an eye-popping offer, giving a 20-year-old the chance to play in the Champions League with some of the best players to ever grace the Premier League. Can’t say fairer than that.
Cut to the chase and Sterling would have been crazy to turn City down.
City, it should be stressed, conducted themselves with class throughout the negotiations and Liverpool’s relationship with their near neighbours has been professional throughout. You can park any barbs aimed towards them in the lunatic fringe zone.
But let’s not deny what the player and his agent did over the last 12 months and claim ‘it’s part of the business’. It really isn’t, and every modern footballer and representative will look upon Sterling’s conduct and see it as the blueprint to ignore when trying to pursue a transfer.
“He got what he wanted so it worked,” many are saying.
Not so. Raheem Sterling is an excellent, promising footballer who was desperately wanted by one of the richest clubs in the world. At £49m, it would have happened without the air and noise pollution Sterling and his agent deemed so necessary.