Liverpool winger grew up in shadow of famous stadium, writes Jason Burt
Football memories for Raheem Sterling swirl around the FA Cup and its spiritual home, Wembley Stadium: of Didier Drogba scoring the winning goal in the final and, before that, of gazing awe-struck as the magnificent arena was being built.
The Liverpool winger went to the Copland High School in north-west London – just a Pepe Reina throw-out from Wembley. "The school was literally two minutes from the stadium," Sterling recalls. "When it was being rebuilt I used to ride around there on my BMX bike. There was a little car park and we used to ride around it. At first there was nothing there, then one day there was the arch and then on it went until it was finished."
That Drogba goal came in the first final back at the 'new' Wembley against Manchester United, and Sterling was given a ticket by his school as part of a gifted-and-talented-kids programme. "It was just beautiful and from that moment I felt I really wanted to play there one day, that it would be a dream come true," he says.
Such has been Sterling's progress that he could play there next week if, as seems likely, he is included in Roy Hodgson's England squad for the friendly against Brazil. That Drogba final was only in 2007 – a stark reminder of just how young, Sterling, who turned 18 last month, is as he prepares to face League One Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup today.
He is acutely aware of his youth and it is evident in the way he talks of the senior pros, of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Luis Suarez, who are suddenly his Liverpool team-mates. "I didn't say a word," Sterling says of his first experience of the first-team dressing-room. "And I don't say much even now." He was, of course, made to feel welcome. At his age, Gerrard said, he did not speak to senior players until he was spoken to. "You don't even want to look," Sterling admits. "You don't even want to make eye contact! It just makes you nervous." Thankfully that nervousness has not been evident on the pitch, where Sterling has made such a dramatic, fearless impact this season.
Indeed, such was his exuberance that he even received a very public dressing down – as part of the Being: Liverpool TV documentary series – from Brendan Rodgers at half-time during a match against Manchester City. "The manager doesn't want any young players thinking they're better than what they are and he has put his stamp on me," Sterling says. "That was one of those situations where he wasn't having a go, but he was making everyone know that you can't showboat. He was laying the law down. It's good of him."
From, possibly, too many step-overs to making sure Sterling, and other young players, do not step out of line, Rodgers is acutely aware of the need to develop such talent.
"He's actually spoken to me about that from day one, from the start of the season and up until now," he says. "He just said, 'when you sign your contract, don't relax, you've got to push on to the next level because you don't want to disappear and nobody has heard of you again'."
It was not the only clip to have an impact. Another, taken from Liverpool's pre-season tour to the U.S., came with a warning from Rodgers for Sterling apparently saying something behind his back during a training session. "It maybe didn't do me any favours," Sterling admits. "It gave people the impression that I'm a 'massive-time kid' and it's nothing like that. He misheard what I said and we both spoke about it after."
Not that Sterling feels he needs to be kept in check, although he is quick to praise the powerful influence of his family and, in particular, his mother, Nadine, who has "sat me down and told me this is an important time in my life". At the same time, he says, it would be a "crime" to model himself on any particular players. "Who impresses me?" Sterling adds.
A five-year contract was signed in December, cementing his importance to Liverpool as other clubs began to circle. Sterling had no doubt he would stay – "I was always going to sign but it was annoying to hear people asking 'are you going to sign?'?" – and it helped that Liverpool have always made him feel wanted, from the moment the then-manager Rafael Benitez took time to talk to him as, aged 15, he had the choice of other clubs.
Oldham v Liverpool,