Much Ado About Sterling
Raheem Sterling made all footballing headlines earlier this week when he was called up by Roy Hodgson to the England squad for their 2014 World Cup qualifier against Ukraine.
The 17-year-old Liverpool winger was brought in to replace Theo Walcott who withdrew through illness after England’s emphatic 5-0 thrashing of Moldova in the opening game of their qualifying campaign.
Sterling only made his senior Liverpool debut in March of this year, coming on as a substitute in a disappointing 2-1 defeat against Wigan Athletic. However, he was given his first start in the recent 2-2 draw with Manchester City, where he shone, and followed this up with another promising performance in Liverpool’s latest match – their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal.
It is rare for an English player to make such an impact at a big club at such a precocious age and the praise and plaudits he has received have been fully justified. For a team in transition and struggling under new manager Brendan Rodgers, Sterling has been a breath of fresh air with his pacey, direct and fearless approach.
A call up to the England squad for a qualifier at Wembley seemed to be a logical decision, rewarding a young talent who already looks comfortable at the highest level. There should have been no expectation, doubt or debate. Just the opportunity for a player who will surely represent his country in the future to get a taste of what is to come when he has had ample time and opportunity.
However, perhaps frustrated with the lack of reasons to complain or conduct a post-mortem following the impressive away win against Moldova, the English media has blown Sterling’s selection out of proportion. There have been countless columns written, coaches commenting and former professionals having their say – even after Hodgson confirmed that Sterling would not play against Ukraine but just learn from the experience.
While there is a lot of hope for Sterling to develop into a top class winger, the intense focus from the media was over the top. Such expectation should not be placed on the shoulders of someone so young. Hodgson was very clear about his selection, saying: “He mustn't think he's become part of the set-up and has made it.”
“When you bring someone in who has only burst on the scene in the last couple of games I'm causing headlines to be written.”
Hodgson’s clarification was welcome and somewhat necessary after the hyperbole of Sterling’s prospects of playing, and even in some cases, criticism of his call up and unfair comparisons to Theo Walcott. Realistically, there is no way in which the two cases should be compared, barring the ages at which they have announced themselves in English football.
The Arsenal winger’s inclusion in England’s 2006 World Cup squad by Sven-Goran Eriksson was a ‘big gamble’ that he admitted to making on the morning of announcing his chosen 23. It was one that did not pay off for either manager or player, Walcott did not make any contribution but started the following season under immense expectation and pressure, and England did not benefit from his selection as they once again crashed out at the quarter final stage of a tournament.
Liverpool’s young talent was only selected for one qualifier, for which he was not even in contention to play, due to injury and illness to other squad members. If he is to avoid failing to living up to his potential- as many would argue is the case with Walcott- the media, and indeed football fans in general, would do well to remember this. Under Rodgers, Sterling will have the chance to establish himself and international football will come when he is ready.
Forget the tenuous comparisons with Rooney, Walcott and more recently, Oxlade-Chamberlain. Raheem Sterling deserves to be given all the time he needs before being relied on for England. With the 2014 World Cup in Rio still two full seasons of football away, anything could happen in this young man’s career. Let us hope that is a prosperous and patient improvement out of the media spotlight, for both Sterling’s sake and the benefit of the England team.