Saturday 17 August 2019

Career has always been a priority for zealous Raheem Sterling

Harsh lessons learned during five years at Anfield reason behind his decision to move

Raheem Sterling's quest for self-improvement is deeply entrenched
Raheem Sterling's quest for self-improvement is deeply entrenched

Simon Hughes

Panic gripped the decision-makers at Liverpool when Raheem Sterling disappeared in the hours before he was due to sign the long-term contract with the club that, in 2010, would take him away from Queens Park Rangers and keep him from the clutches of Manchester City.

Officials were dispatched and a search began for the 15-year-old across the grounds of the club's academy in Kirkby, with fear spreading that someone from City had found a way to smuggle him out and convince him that their option was the wiser one to take.

The hunt was brief, however. Sterling was found alone, kicking a ball against a fence and practising his control. Those present remain convinced his quest for self-improvement was deeply entrenched and already well under way.

The story reveals a side to Sterling that critics judged to have been lost now, taking into account the manner in which he left Liverpool in the summer for City when the chronicle of the separation was dominated by the potential economic gain of the individuals involved, as well as the supposed guidance - or interference - of agent Aidy Ward.

It was overlooked that five years ago Ward - then a representative at the Impact Sports Management Group, where he took care of Sterling's off-field affairs along with Rob Segal - had encouraged the player to choose Liverpool over City.

After introductions to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres on a tour of the Melwood training ground, Ward and Segal recognised that Sterling was being asked to join a Champions League club at first-team level under manager Rafael Benitez, whose new five-year contract gave him increased influence over the youth structure into which Sterling would be integrated.

As the player's stock rose at Anfield - thanks largely to a clear ambition as well as a self-belief that did not stray towards arrogance, according to those who knew him best at Liverpool - the club's performances retreated.

The departures of key figures like Benitez, Torres, Luis Suarez and finally Gerrard all contributed in some way towards just one Champions League campaign during that time, which concluded under Brendan Rodgers a year ago with a miserable exit at the group stage.

By the end of last season, Sterling's relationship with Rodgers was healthy, but Ward believed the manager was taking advantage of the understanding between the pair by reminding anyone who would listen of his involvement in his client's development.

Ward - who, significantly had by then separated from Segal and had taken sole responsibility of Sterling's representation - was even suspicious that Rodgers had instructed the club's in-house photographers to picture him with the player during training sessions, offering the impression that a guardian was at work.

Sterling and his advisor weighed all of the conditions together, buying into the idea that the financial package City were offering reflected their commitment to him.


They took a hard-eyed view of Liverpool's unrelenting claim to greatness, especially considering City had caught up and raced ahead in the criteria - the Champions League - where they trailed at the point of his arrival on Merseyside.

Sterling joined a club where Benitez had a say in all football operations. The Spaniard had long bickered with academy director Steve Heighway and, with the former Liverpool and Ireland player gone, Benitez encouraged a new recruitment programme which focused on finding the best young British players from across the country rather than mainly in the north-west of England.

Benitez's edict was supported by his successors Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish and it led to the purchases of Jordon Ibe from Wycombe and Jerome Sinclair from West Bromwich Albion. Both, like Sterling, have since reached Liverpool's first team.

Yet, there were others that did not make it so far; like Dave Moli who, exactly a month Sterling's junior, joined Liverpool at 14, having excited scouts monitoring Luton Town.

Moli was given the same houseparents as Sterling near St Helens, where they lived in a four-bedroom, semi-detached property with Peter and Sandra Reeves, a couple in their early-60s whose memories of the period are positive, largely because of Sterling's polite manner and clear appreciation of their help.

Though Sterling's ascent towards Melwood and Liverpool's first team was rapid, Moli did not earn the same opportunities. Sterling became exposed to the ruthlessness of the professional game through the experiences of his friend, who was allowed to join Wolves in 2012, with Liverpool opening the door for the striker's departure having decided not to offer him another contract.

Moli returned to England at the start of this month, having played in the Maldives, to sign for non-league Bedford Town.

Another of Sterling's closest companions in the early days at Rainhill High School was Henoc Mukendi, who has since given up football.

His passion for the game was stained by his last few seasons at Liverpool where a succession of inappropriate and ultimately unsuccessful loan moves drained his spirit.

Sterling was perceptive enough to absorb valuable lessons from this and began to appreciate that players' prospects can change, especially when managers move on.

QPR were the first professional club to have a look at him after Brent-based scout Peter Moring made a recommendation to John O'Brien, who was in charge of the club's U-16s side.

Moring was later paid £50 for the tip after the head of recruitment, Joe Gallen, put Sterling on the longest youth registration contract possible, lasting five years.

Gallen thinks he sealed the deal by buying Sterling a pair of boots and a tracksuit.

"We were fortunate that Raheem probably didn't realise how good he was," he said.

It was only when Sterling began training with England's youth teams that the possibility of him leaving QPR became real.

"We were a smaller club and a lot of the other boys at bigger clubs were earning a lot more money than Raheem," Gallen added.

"I'm sure they speak about wages and this is when it becomes very difficult for clubs like QPR to keep their best players."

It was a performance for England U-16s that convinced scout Mark Anderson to call his boss, Frank McParland, Liverpool's academy chief. Sterling's lightning pace had earlier prompted Anderson's brother, Lee, to pick up the phone after a game against Crystal Palace.

That Sterling arrived at Liverpool owed much to the persuasive powers of those in charge, with McParland convincing his mother Nadine that her son would also get a reasonable academic education at Liverpool, too.

Despite being placed at Vernon House in London, an institution that caters for pupils with special needs, having arrived from Jamaica aged seven without the schooling children enjoy here, Sterling emerged from Rainhill High with five GCSEs including qualifications in the core subjects. He took fewer exams than some other students only because of his football commitments.

Irish Independent

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