Opinions

Howard Hockin: Why is Raheem Sterling everyone’s favourite scapegoat?

Raheem Sterling.

Apart from trying to quantify just how big Wayne Rooney’s decline has been over the past couple of years (it’s big), there are few players that create such discussion and such disagreement than a specific 22 year old English attacking midfielder. Why this is so can be hard to pin down, but the disagreements from fans of other teams doesn’t bother me in the slightest – most who dismiss him as a great player could write their football knowledge on the back of a stamp.

What’s more disconcerting is the criticism he gets from City fans, those that watch him every week. He’s clearly not perfect, and world-class performances week in, week out would have stopped such an occurrence, but how many players reach that level consistently? No, the criticism hints at something other than how he plays football. And it’s worrying, because when you go to the Etihad you can hear that vocal minority who can’t wait to criticise him for every mistake. It makes you wonder why they bother and where this attitude comes from.

So I thought I would list what I think are the reasons for why an unassuming footballer who has done very little to deserve real headlines can be so divisive.

He’s crap

What?!

Well let’s be frank. There are City fans out there that think that a young player directly involved in 39 of our goals since he joined 18 months ago has no other asset except speed.

Now he does have flaws, they are plain for all to see, flaws that expose him at times. He is hesitant in the penalty area at times, lacks decisiveness, lacks physicality (not an essential trait, but still) and his shooting is clearly a major weakness that needs work.

And yet he is often our brightest attacking spark. His positional sense, football intelligence and movement is incredible for someone who has just turned 22, and the stats show him in a good light too. He also never hides. Two international managers and two club managers – in other words, every manager he has played for – rate him and play/played him regularly. But hey, what would they know?

And it is weird how those that don’t rate him shout the loudest after a bad performance, but are nowhere to be seen when he excels – and let’s not forget, even during last season’s disappointments, when many players failed to live up to expectations, and when he was abused wherever he went, Sterling was probably our best player in the Champions League.

And yet even with his clear improvement this season, perhaps the biggest improvement of any player under Pep, the warmth remains elusive from many.

“If he can’t handle a bit of booing then he’s in the wrong game” is an opinion I’ve heard many times. I bet they wouldn’t be so dismissive if it was David Silva who had been booed for 12 months.

So in summary, man up Raheem, you snowflake.

Liverpool’s hatchet job rubbed off on some of us

Raheem Sterling is clearly an ambitious man who believes in himself, and like many thousands of footballers before him, and many thousands in the future, he wished to leave his football club for another one. We all know what transpired, and the Liverpool media cabal went to work, as did the club’s own PR department – thus he was booed for an entire season by every set of fans he encountered.

And if Norwich fans believed that he was a money-grabbing snake who went on strike to force a move and betrayed the club that had nurtured him from an embryo to the man he is today, then I would bet all the money in the world that some City fans have their doubts about his character too.

It’s also part of the natural hypocrisy of the football fan who would happily drive an underperforming player out of a club, but cry betrayal if a good player requests a change in their career situation.

A clear theme that you will see on message boards and social media is fellow City players receiving a fraction of the criticism that Sterling does should their form falter. One clear example is Sergio Aguero. I’d say there’s a certain logic to this. Aguero has been there and done it, like other players whose form has dipped sometimes, such as David Silva or Yaya Toure. They’ve delivered historic moments and trophies, so they get leeway when they don’t hit the heights. Aguero especially has got credit in the bank, for obvious reasons. It’s not really fair, as Sterling hasn’t had the chance yet to create history, but that’s life.

The transfer fee

I think this is definitely relevant. If Kelechi Iheanacho and Raheem Sterling played side by side for a season and both flattered to deceive, then Sterling would get the vast majority of the criticism and abuse. With a large transfer fee comes expectations, and standards. Players are often bought for potential, but as Sterling had already come close to winning a title at Liverpool, we sometimes forget that he still very young and far from his peak years, and at the price we paid some of us expect instant results, the complete player.

It’s a bit harsh as the fee is simply the price at which Liverpool were prepared to sell, and what’s more they did not want to, and there is the English premium to factor in, but it’s hard sometimes to analyse a player without detaching yourself from what he has cost the club. If fans could do that, they’d have much less of a problem with a player who has been no worse than a host of other City players, and often much better. Personally I see what he could become in a few years – and it’s bloody exciting.

Which begs the question?

Why does John Stones, six months older, just as expensive an acquisition, and regularly left out of the City side after a string of costly mistakes, attract far less vitriol than Raheem Sterling? Answers on a postcard please.

Perhaps it’s because of……….

The particular flaws in Sterling’s game are what wind fans up the most

Bit leftfield this, but hear me out. Sterling’s flaws in his game are the type that frustrate, especially in a team that underperformed last season and appears to waste its chances this. Thus holding onto the ball when he should shoot or going to ground when you think he should also shoot or simply missing a good chance with a scuffed shot are the sort of situations that have fans tearing their hair out, if they have any left. As I have also mentioned elsewhere, whilst Raheem is no waif, I do not think he is overly-physical, and getting regularly barged off the ball by bigger, more physical opposition players, in a league that is extremely physical anyway, also rubs fans up the wrong way. The last thing we want though is him bulking up in the gym and losing the positive sides to his game.

On the other hand, I would offer an unproven theory that many fans see the mistake of John Stones as a by-product of the Pep system that requires panic-inducing passing sequences across our own area and is high-risk, always offering the chance of a horrendous mistake, so it’s not really his fault.

Perception is all. After all, missing a sitter is more “obvious” than failing to pick up an opposition player at a corner or not tracking a run.

It’s just a theory.

The colour of his skin

The elephant in the room.

I cannot state that this is a problem amongst City fans, nor can I claim to know how you all think, but there has clearly been an undercurrent in certain sections of the press, and amongst rival fans, a feeling that Sterling is being treated differently because he is a young, black man with money, despite the fact that apart from purchasing a nice house and car, as all top footballers do, he really has not been flaunting his wealth. But when the media repeats a narrative enough times, as The Express do for example with immigrants or impending arctic blasts, then it seeps into the psyche, even when simply parting the curtains reveals a peasant sunny day with a light south-westerly breeze.

I digress.

As I said, I think there are more relevant reasons for City fans’ negative analysis of the player than this, and this is more a perception amongst the general public, and the odd right-wing tabloid editor.

A victim of an underachieving club

The last two and a half years have not been the greatest in our history, if you accept the much higher expectations. The league cup victory was nice, but we are aiming higher than that nowadays.

And thus when times are hard, the knives come out, and as alluded to earlier, a City team must always have a scapegoat, and Sterling fits the bill nicely, having not been part of our previous successes.

Obviously Aleksandar Kolarov is also available for this role, as and when required.

He runs funny

It’s amazing what little justification is needed to dislike a player. Even his sideburns last season had people tutting. Still, I’d happily see Daniel Sturridge sent to prison for 20 years for a crime he did not commit simply due to his goal celebration.

Yep, football fans are weird, illogical beasts. People are weird. The world’s currently really weird.

Maybe it’s that simple when it boils down to it.

Whatever, players, amazingly, tend to react positively when supported, when cheered on, as teams as a whole do.

Something to consider, eh? Because it’s getting rather tiresome hearing one player get it in the neck for most of this team’s ills. Sterling’s attitude and willingness to learn and improve is spot on, and I think he can work on his weaknesses and become England’s best wide player in a generation.

Show him some love, you won’t regret it.

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