Sunday 20 October 2019

Jamie Carragher: 'As well as being a star on the pitch, Sterling becoming a trailblazer off it, too'

Raheem Sterling. Photo: PA
Raheem Sterling. Photo: PA

Jamie Carragher

There has never been an easier or more dangerous time for footballers to speak their mind. One tweet is all it takes to invite a shower of criticism or support. What Raheem Sterling has achieved this season is to show how it is possible to take control of how you are perceived by being yourself.

Within the space of a few months he has gone from the "bad boy" of English football to a potential winner of Sports Personality of the Year, from one crazy extreme to another.

Whether this transformation has been assisted by those around him or not - and I suspect this was more considered than an instant reaction to one incident at Chelsea this season - it is a lesson to every player wary of expressing feelings. This is the way to go.

"I am not normally the person to talk a lot, but when I think I need my point to be heard I will speak up," Sterling wrote in that applauded Instagram post in January, emphasising his previous reluctance to air his views.

What has changed public perception of Raheem is this honesty. It can be a fine line between being open and unprofessional - I know this from my own experiences, which sometimes got me in trouble. I stand by my opinion there were things said to get Raheem out of Liverpool which were deliberately provocative and crossed a line. In my view, they were agent games.

What we have seen recently is completely different, which is why there is more support for him. People have come to understand his character, recognising he is good kid trying to make the best of his career. This is the Raheem I know, having been a team-mate at Liverpool.

Such speaking from the heart is rarer than it used to be - and with good reason. Young players are advised to tread carefully, with media training provided which can often involve saying as little as possible, so avoiding any contentious headlines or misquoting.

If I was coming through today, I do not know how I would deal with modern pitfalls, resisting the urge to tweet a controversial post-match observation about a referee, an opponent or critical supporter telling me how poorly I performed. Offering an opinion is like lighting a bonfire, especially with social media being as vicious as it is.

Players can sometimes feel they are in a no-win situation. You can be categorised as "outspoken" if you react emotionally post-match, having your words debated on every forum to the extent you might ask yourself if it is worth the hassle.

Look at Eric Dier using Twitter to support a People's Vote on Brexit, a view he is perfectly entitled to, whether you agree or not. He invited support from those who back him, and criticism from those opposed to the idea.

As supporters - and as someone who now works in the media - we must pause before jumping on any contentious remarks, and ask ourselves: What do we want from our players? Do we want interesting perspectives, or boring, repetitive sound bites?

Players fearing abuse and ridicule will steer clear of the press, which can do more harm than good when it comes to their reputation. Some of the most well-received 'Monday Night Football' shows in recent years have been with those who rarely conducted interviews at the peak of their career, such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, as if viewers were surprised by their down-to-earth nature. Why? It is because they have constructed an opinion of those lads based on how they were misrepresented.

When I played, there were no PR agents offering support. I never discussed what I should or should not say with my agent. My attitude was to answer questions with truth, and the more experienced I was the better I became at knowing how and when to make my points.

I would prepare for interviews knowing what I wanted to get off my chest, recognising if a journalist was guiding me towards an angle. You could see the headlines in questions and respond accordingly, giving them what they wanted to reflect your opinion or moving on to the next question.

Without wishing to sound big-headed, I knew by the end of my career if a journalist sat down with me, they would leave with a good interview and have a positive view of my character.

Others I played with took a different view. Journalists were vetted before they were granted access or in extreme cases the contents of interviews edited to give a manufactured impression. Official club sites or match-day programmes are still wary of publishing anything that might end up in a newspaper.

It was going that way before I retired and has become more controlled since. The consequence is the stripping of many players' personality to the general public, which is counterproductive.

One of my closest friends at Liverpool was Michael Owen, who this week said he felt he needed to write a new autobiography to address misconceptions about his career.

Unlike me, Michael was guided a lot by his agency when he achieved superstar status and he might agree a lot of that amounted to over-protection, which did not show people enough of his character.

What it all comes back to is that word honesty. If I was asked to give a player advice about dealing with media - and I have never been - I would say it is those who show who they really are and what they really think who are generally presented more favourably.

As Gareth Southgate, the England manager, indicated prior to the World Cup, the end of an era where players would mix and engage more openly with journalists or supporters did not create a healthy relationship. It erected barriers which he tried to break down in Russia last summer.

It may be no coincidence that Southgate's more proactive attitude is influencing members of his squad. As someone who was always willing to deal with the media - something which I believe has been invaluable in my post-playing career - I believe this is positive for the new generation.

The more we hear from the highest-profile players, the more we understand about the journeys they are on and the more we grow to like them.

Beyond the serious issue of the racism Raheem has experienced, and which he has forced into a more open debate, he is showing everyone how to use the platforms available to set the agenda.

Raheem may not only prove an inspiration for the youngsters seeking to follow him on the pitch. He may be changing things for the better when it comes to all those seeking to make their point off it, too.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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