He demolished teams when playing in the reserves and continually dazzled with dribbling skills that had fans drooling as they contemplated the day those sumptuous displays would transpose into the first team.
That day has arrived and Sterling has been nothing short of exemplary since he squirmed his way from sidelines to headlines.
Indeed, he has offered a poise and trickery that has been far too rare in Liverpool teams for many seasons. He has earned his place in the starting line-up and though it is through a dearth of options on the wing that his chance has come, he has proven he is capable at this level.
Now were the circumstances different, I would say that it is up to the other squad members to oust him or be left in the wake of his scurrying boots. But Sterling is a football sapling who needs shielding from the stormy matches that come in the first team as much as he needs cultivating.
His talent is already impressive but his potential ability is right at the limit and time and attention must be sprinkled appropriately if he is to grow into the footballer we hope to see. Having played 9 games already this season, he is well on track to amass 40+ games this season, especially when you consider the gruelling length of the Europa League campaign if we make it to the latter stages . This is forgetting that there is still one more competition for us to enter in the shape of the FA Cup. There is potentially a staggering amount of playing time for a footballer who is only 17.
I am a firm advocate of playing youngsters. I think they only get better with more game time and can only learn when playing out on the pitch against the very best. There is the added bonus that kids tend to try to impress and this can offer a level of invention that more risk-averse older heads will not employ. This can provide greater penetration and a greater spectacle when watching the team.
However, minutes in the first team must be tempered by the reality of the age and physique of a player. Some prospects can be 18 and built like full grown men and while their bodies may be able to live up to the demands of weekly first team action but most academy graduates aren’t built like this.
Raheem fits into the latter category. He is 5’ 7” and although more muscular than last season, he is still wiry and looks like a boy rather than a man. Thankfully, both Rodgers and Dalglish did not succumb to the usual preconceived notions about these types of players. There is a tendency for young talents in Premier League youth teams to be deemed ‘too small to make it’ and this justifies excluding precocious talents for arbitrary reasons. However, there does come a point where a manager has to show concern for the number of games a youngster starts.
And for Raheem Sterling there are a number of factors.
Firstly, his age. He is 17 and still growing. His body is still undergoing changes and everyone knows how much energy is used up simply in the process of growing up. In addition to this, he is playing high intensity physical football for an elite team in the Premier League on top of the training that he does on a daily basis. I needed about 12 hours sleep at his age; with the extra work he puts in he should be sleeping 24 hours a day!
Secondly, is his position. Attacking players are always going to be targeted more than defensive ones. When a 17 year old attacker waltzes through a defence, it usually irks some lump to try and either foul the lad, or teach the youngster a lesson he won’t soon forget. These challenges have already appeared on Sterling and although a few he has skipped past or over, there are a couple that have hit the mark and there could be a lot worse around the corner.
This is where Rodgers must be careful. Playing 25 games in a short space of time may leave Sterling tired, burnt out and unhelpful towards the end of the season. This offers to problems. Primarily, it could leave Liverpool with an under-strength first team. Additionally, it could place Sterling under pressure for not performing at the level he has already attained so early in the season – this can lead to a loss of confidence and resentment, the last thing a player trying to establish their place in a first team needs.
However, that is if Sterling plays 25 games. If he plays the full season then there could be potentially disastrous results. Not only could Sterling be flagging in the short term due to the physical demands placed on him but also he could be hampering his future career.
He will need time out of the firing line if he is going to be a consistent force for Liverpool. And this is what we want. Not just a player for a season. Not just a player for 5 years. We want gifted academy graduates who can contribute to the success of the club for 20 years. And if it so happens that Sterling does move on to pastures new, we want Real Madrid to be spending £150m on him for the privilege. We don’t want to receive a lessened amount for a wrecked superstar whose best days are behind him.
Let’s consider two appropriate comparisons. The obvious is Michael Owen. A pacey, small build forward who was playing regular football at the age of 17. He was explosive and took to the first team like Henry VIII to a buffet. He was so potent that teams targeted him for the kind of rough treatment mentioned earlier. In his first full season he played 44 games including 36 Premier League matches and after that he never left the first team. He continued to be prolific in front of goal for Liverpool and kept his place on merit.
Now 32, his career is on the downward slope; this taken alone is not unusual. But Owen’s career has been heading south for a long time. I would consider the end of Owen’s career at the elite level to be when he was last picked for England. This was 4 years ago. Many would say that his best days were already behind him at this point.
This is not the same for every 32 year old striker. And while injury does wreck careers regardless of their game time as a youngster, it feels as though Owen was hampered by that endless stream of first team action. I will rest the blame for Owen’s sapped career squarely on Liverpool Football Club’s shoulders. A young sinewy framed striker should not be playing as many games as he did for Liverpool. We were so desperate to wrest back the title that we forgot about the welfare of a wide eyed kid who desperately wanted to play for one of the biggest clubs in the country.
This should never be repeated.
This is why my next comparison is a man who is similar in stature to Owen and Sterling and was not run ragged at 17. Del Piero is 5ft 8 ½” tall and he had his fair share of injuries over his career, in fact many feared that it could be over for him when he suffered a horrible knee injury in 1998. But Del Piero’s first full season in the Serie A was when he was 20. A full 3 years older than Owen was when he embarked on his regular football career. Not only is Del Piero still playing at the age of 37 but he has played consistently long seasons for the past 13 years. If we compare the number of games Owen has played over the last 7 seasons to Del Piero the difference is not just startling, it is harrowing. Del Piero has amassed 268 appearances. Owen? A paltry 131. That’s Del Piero’s average of 38 games a season to Owen’s 18. And this is forgetting that Del Piero is 5 years Owen’s senior. I will bet that Owen is not playing at 37, and if he is, his 7 previous season’s appearance count will be nowhere near 131 let alone 268.
This is the difference. Sterling has the brightest future ahead of him, but whether it will glow with the glory and longevity of the sun, or explode and burn out as quickly as a supernova will depend entirely on what happens with him right now.