Raheem Sterling has quickly become the golden boy of English football after a stunning run of form this season has set him apart from the rest.
Not only that, but the Manchester City forward has become one of the leading voices for important social issues as well, particularly in his stance against racism.
Once vilified in the press for his choices off the pitch and his performances on it, Sterling has enjoyed an impressive turnaround this campaign.
Here, Press Association Sport charts the England international’s journey from the player people loved to criticise to one receiving widespread acclaim.
Despite being one of the most talented young players in the game, breaking into Liverpool’s first team as a teenager, Sterling had always been a target for the tabloids on both the front and the back pages. They were fascinated with his personal life and, in particularly, his earning power and it did not take much for him to make headlines. Driving a dirty car, going to Greggs and travelling on budget airline Easyjet were just some of the stories to be covered. The biggest front-page story came in the lead-up to last summer’s World Cup when his new tattoo of a gun was revealed and there were calls for Sterling to be dropped from the squad for the tournament in Russia.
Up until this season there was always a sense that there was more to come from Sterling, in particularly in front of goal. The 24-year-old received criticism last year for some high-profile misses for Manchester City, even though he was having his best goalscoring campaign, while his failure to find the back of the net at the World Cup also attracted negative headlines and comments. Former Wales international Vinnie Jones, for example, said: “You think if he didn’t have that pace he’d be playing for Exeter or someone.” And fans were heavily critical on social media.
Working with Pep Guardiola has done wonders for Sterling’s career and it has gone from strength to strength. Despite the criticism last season, the England man still finished the Premier League campaign with 18 goals and 11 assists, but he has taken his form to new levels this time around. He has already bagged 15 goals with nine assists in the league, also excelling in the Champions League and scoring the winning penalty to seal Carabao Cup glory against Chelsea in February. He is many people’s tip for the player of the year.
There was some basis for the criticism of Sterling’s performances in an England shirt as he was unable to recreate his club form with the Three Lions on his chest and – although he was pivotal to the way they played on their way to the World Cup semi-finals – his lack of goals was a problem. However, he has completely turned that around for his country this season. He finally ended a 1,102-day scoring drought for England when he netted a double in the memorable UEFA Nations League win in Spain and has not looked back. He scored a hat-trick in the thumping of the Czech Republic and added another against Montenegro.
Highlighting a clear disparity
Having been on the end of so many negative headlines in the press, Sterling is in a good position to speak out about it and, in December, he highlighted “unacceptable” disparity in the way the same story – buying a house – involving a young white player and a young black player was reported. Phil Foden’s headline was a positive one while Tosin Adarabioyo was criticised. Sterling, whose Instagram post was liked 650,000 times, was widely praised for bringing this into the spotlight. He did it in the wake of receiving alleged racist abuse at Chelsea when he went to retrieve a ball from just in front of the stand.
Leading the calls
In the wake of England players receiving racist abuse during Monday’s 5-1 win over Montenegro, Sterling was a leading voice in calling for UEFA to hand out strong punishments. Danny Rose was allegedly subjected to monkey chants and Sterling told the governing body to dish out stadium bans. His opinions form part of a one-man crusade to help eradicate racism from the game. He said: “It’s not just young black men, it is young kids growing up in diverse cities, it’s not just black kids I want to reach out to. England, we’ve got a diverse country, it’s 2019 as I keep saying and there’s lots of different places in our country, it’s just bringing awareness and letting people know that it’s new times, it’s different.”
Putting smiles on faces
Having taken a personal interest in the health of Damary Dawkins, Sterling took the opportunity to pay a personal tribute following the 13-year-old’s death. Dawkins, who played in Crystal Palace’s development squad, died earlier this month after he relapsed twice following a stem cell transplant shortly before Christmas. Sterling helped bring attention to a worldwide search for a bone marrow donor with Afro-Caribbean descent for Dawkins and met the youngster. And following his untimely death, Sterling paid tribute by revealing a T-shirt with the message “may your soul rest in peace” after he scored a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Czech Republic. After the match he said: “I thought I had to do something to try to give his family something to smile about.”