The fast and 'fearless'
It was when someone mentioned Euro 2004 in Raheem Sterling’s presence, with a reference to the impact Wayne Rooney had on that competition, that we were reminded about the youthfulness of the new kid on the block. Sterling’s face was a blank and when he was asked to pick out the first tournament he could actually remember it turned out that Luke Shaw, at 18, was not the only member of England’s squad with zero recollections beyond the last World Cup.
Sterling was being asked about 2004 because of the similarities between the way he has announced himself on the world stage, at the age of 19, with those prodigious performances from an 18-year-old Rooney – the original assassin-faced baby – for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team in Portugal.
As a kid, the stories are legend of how Rooney used to play with a tennis ball or a screwed-up drinks can on the back streets of Croxteth. Sterling has a few tales like that himself, except his manor was the St Raphael’s estate in Neasden, just off the North Circular. It is barely a Joe Hart punt from Wembley Stadium and Sterling talked about how he and his mates would make the journey on their BMXs to make the most of the open space of the car parks.
He also thought back to those days at Copland Community School when he excelled so much as a 14-year-old that his PE teacher, Paul Lawrence, put him in with the under-18s, on playing fields where the arch of Wembley rose into the distance. On Sterling’s left arm, there is the ink that symbolises this part of his childhood. His tattoo is of a young boy, standing on Wembley Way, looking up at the national stadium with a ball under his arm and the No 10 on his shirt. “I grew up five minutes from the stadium,” he explained. “I’d say to myself: ‘One day, when the stadium is built, I’d like to play there.’ That’s why I got the tattoo: a young boy with a football in his hands, looking at the stadium, saying it’s a dream.”
This is Sterling’s first appearance before the media on England duty and it is impossible to get away from his boyishness. More than once, he mentioned the advice he had been taking from “mum” – Nadine, who brought the family over from Kingston in Jamaica in 2002 and takes such an active part in his career he says he sometimes wonders if she thinks she is José Mourinho. “Before the game she just told me to relax, not put too much pressure on myself and just try to do my best. After the game she dropped me a text. She can be tough on me, though. She has told me before that I don’t put the ball into the back of the net enough.”
Sterling, in many ways, has become the symbol of the new England. “Fearless” was the word Steven Gerrard used to describe his performance against Italy, when the teenager took Wayne Rooney’s usual position in attack. Frank Lampard (36), the oldest player in the squad, was asked what advice he could give a player almost half his age.
“It is very simple,” he replied. “As a footballer, carry on doing what you’re doing. Raheem is a different player to me. He’s instinctive. It’s probably hard for him to answer questions of ‘how you do this, how do you do that?’ because he doesn’t think that way. He thinks on the pitch at the last second because of his ability and pace. I probably had to think a bit more, work a bit harder behind the scenes, but he has that instinct. So keep doing what you’re doing, enjoy it.”
At Liverpool, Sterling has a manager in Brendan Rodgers who fully trusts in him. Now, he can say the same about the national team. “They [the two managers] just try to take the pressure off me, so that I can express myself,” Sterling says. “They want me to show what I can do on the ball. I’m just learning, trying not to think about the opposition too much, doing my own thing.”
Yet it is the way, as Lampard alluded to, that Sterling still seems remarkably down to earth that also stands out. He acknowledges, for starters, that there are still parts of his game that are raw. “The most important thing for me last season was to try and improve my goalscoring record. I was getting chances but wasn’t finishing them and I had to be more composed in the box. I can learn from Studge [Daniel Sturridge] and people like that at the training ground. That’s something I will be working on more in the future, definitely.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014