Raheem Sterling saga: It's insulting to pretend it's not about the money
Published 03/04/2015 | 02:30
Can Raheem Sterling any longer really be seen as the new and potentially enduring face of Liverpool?
The question has never carried more passing weight - or doubt - as his club travel to Arsenal for tomorrow's pivotal Champions' League qualifying test.
It is for the moment an idea surely vulnerable to a gust of wind in the transfer market and an apparently incessant itch in his palm.
For some time already the notion has been buffeted by the growing sense that the gifted 20-year-old may see Liverpool less the foundation of his future as a launching pad for new horizons - and riches.
Now if this is indeed true - and this week's interview with the BBC was for many merely an elaborate and somewhat nauseating advertisement for himself and his availability to powerhouse purchasers like Manchester United, Chelsea and perhaps even Real Madrid - once again the Anfield renaissance is thrown into flux.
Indeed, when we consider the passion and the commitment that since the days of Bill Shankly more than half a century ago went into shaping one of the game's great traditions, Sterling's coy manipulation of his reputation as maybe one of the big talents over the next decade is surely guaranteed to challenge the optimism of the most devoted supporters.
No following likes to believe it is closer and more in tune with the ambitions of its heroes than the one that gathers at Anfield.
In the wake of that erratic but frequently sublime demi-god Luis Suarez, Sterling has been seen as someone to re-light the flame that burned so fiercely before the late collapse of Liverpool's title drive last season. Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, and, perhaps, the strong, good-hearted, if sometimes predictable Jordan Henderson, were the young players to maintain Brendan Rodgers' impressive grasp of how Liverpool teams are supposed to play - and grow.
Yet how can Sterling be comfortably considered in that number after this week's resort to the airwaves with what was hard not to see as an escalation of his - and his advisers' - search for substantially bigger rewards?
For some time his form has ebbed - but at no cost to the destabilising effect of his refusal to consider extending his relationship with Liverpool longer than the two years remaining on his contract.
The formula is hardly new. It was launched by England centre back Sol Campbell in 2001 when he incensed Spurs fans with his move to Arsenal, swearing that the transfer was provoked not by any crass search for more money but a burning desire for career fulfilment.
Wayne Rooney brought some refinements to his approach to career mobility in 2010 when he lectured Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson on the need for new signings and shortly after signed a new and hugely improved contract.
This week Sterling seemed to be embracing all the nuances of the strategy with his solemn announcements, including: "I would never want the fans to think bad of me, to think I just want as much money for myself.
"I want them to understand it's been a bit much for me this season, with everyone talking about it every minute."
And then came the ritualistic rejection of anything that might just make him the current stand-out football mercenary.
"It's never been about money," he said. "I talk about winning trophies throughout my career. That's all I talk about. Finishing the season empty-handed will not help the situation.
"I don't talk about how many cars I'm going to drive, how many houses I've got. I just purely want to be the best I can be."
But then perhaps he should tell that to someone on a zero-hours work contract or any indeed anyone struggling to understand how a young man of working class origins can turn down a £100,000-a-week offered by the club who have nurtured him.
That progress is plainly now entering a crucial phase. While Sterling does his grandstanding, the rest of football is bound to take a more searching look at his abilities, and never more acutely than if he passes fit for tomorrow's trial in North London.
Of course, the Jamaican-born flier has some enviable talent, as he revealed most recently when scoring against Chelsea in a League Cup semi-final made most memorable by his ability to turn such formidable performers as Nemanja Matic and Gary Cahill into stone.
But then there are other questions inevitably provoked by his willingness to put himself in the harshest of spotlights.
It has been, plainly, an investment in the challenge of the new epoch signalled by the departure of Steven Gerrard at the end of the season. Sterling was supposed to be a vital symbol of re-birth but now he represents much more the uncertainty of mixed and perhaps deeply confused goals.
While Liverpool seek to re-establish their old weight, Sterling has the equally demanding task of making a front-rank career. With neither ambition enhanced this week, Liverpool may have to conclude that one may well have to proceed without the other.