It’s possible, maybe even probable, that I am Raheem Sterling’s biggest fan. Perhaps I share the title with a few, but generally speaking, I think I’m right up there. Since Sterling’s arrival from Liverpool roughly 18 months ago, I’ve been desperate to see the guy succeed. I saw a player that wasn’t going to walk into the hearts of the supporters for various reason. At the time, he was a flashy 20-year-old who didn’t say much and who’d just cost the club £50 million, and there were always going to be sceptics.
It started pretty well for Raheem. Granted, he managed to record a couple of assists early on, as well as scoring his first goal against Watford at the Etihad after just a few league games. Still, I remember the criticisms of Sterling. It was already beginning.
“He doesn’t beat his man enough.”
“He doesn’t get stuck in.”
“He doesn’t score enough.”
The most notable example early on that Sterling was going to struggle to become a fan favourite came at home to Bournemouth. He bagged himself a hat-trick that game, and yet the feeling as I walked out of the ground wasn’t one of joy. There was almost a feel of, ‘yeah, but he missed some good chances too.’ Granted, it wasn’t the opinion of everyone, but I remember distinctly him being slagged off due to a lack of potency, in the same game that he’d bagged three goals. Poor Raheem.
Things went downhill quickly for Sterling. Anonymous performance seemed to follow anonymous performance. So, if you’re reading this thinking that I’m going to defend him at every opportunity, I’m not – he had a number of poor games last season. However, to me at least, there was a player there. A player who was being asked to play in what was a completely disorganised system, Manuel Pellegrini’s way. Small criticisms of Sterling became legitimate scapegoating. Before long, he was being blamed for almost everything.
The national media continued to hound the guy, but instead of showing unison, some of our fans got on board. You can deny it all you like, but some of our ‘supporters’ refused to get behind one of our own. It didn’t matter if he had a good game, it wouldn’t get a mention. However, the next time he missed a half-chance, he was chastised.
Fast-forward to Derby Day. Unfortunately, City lost the game 1-0 due to a Marcus Rashford goal. However, the thing I remember most is Raheem Sterling going down injured. Why? Because all around me at the stadium, there were people slagging him off.
“He doesn’t have the bottle for it.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he was faking it.”
This is not paraphrasing, these are genuine quotes. Now, whether or not you think the guy has lived up to his price tag (which he didn’t choose, by the way), it doesn’t mean that he’s suddenly the sort to fake an injury. Another presumption manufactured by people determined to see him fail.
Soon, it was the end of the season. Sterling was unfancied by what I would say was a big majority of the fanbase. And despite my insistence on Twitter of, ‘Guardiola will turn this guy around,’ people weren’t having it. The European Championships followed, England were knocked out by Iceland. What happens next? The national media coverage is mostly about Raheem Sterling. One man in a squad of many, the apparent reason that England were eliminated. The worst bit about this clear targeting is that our own fans were guilty of it. Not during the Euros, but during the season that had just gone by.
You’ve got a 20/21-year-old player, who hasn’t chosen to move for such a large amount of money. He looks devoid of confidence, and despite that has still managed to score 11 goals and record 10+ assists in his debut year. Yet our fanbase simply couldn’t give the guy a break, it was saddening to see. Unfortunately, many of you had given up on Raheem.
Hop to the present day, Raheem Sterling has arguably been City’s player of the year. Suddenly, he’s got a spring in his step. Step-overs, goals, assists, running at his man and perhaps most importantly: a big smile on his face. The difference? Confidence.
Pep’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for a player who wasn’t really in a thriving system for attacking outlets. There were rumours that Guardiola had called his man following the Euros to declare his support for Sterling. The rewards were instantaneous. A small price to pay for Guardiola to inject his man with a bit of belief, especially if he has unlimited minutes on his phone contract.
Now, I don’t care what people think about footballers, they are human. If you miss a chance and 50,000 people are screaming at you, you are going to feel that pressure like a frying pan to the face. Sterling definitely had some things to work on from last season with Guardiola’s arrival, but more importantly so did our supporters. Both seemed to have done so.
Plenty of you will read this and think that Sterling has to perform to earn the support of the fans. I’d argue that it is our job as fans to support the player through thick and thin. If he’s having an off week, get behind the guy. If he’s banging a goal in, sing his name. This is perhaps especially true of a kid that is scapegoated by his own nation’s media at every single opportunity. Raheem bought a house for his mum – who cares? Raheem bought batteries from a £1 shop – who cares?
This season, Sterling has been the benefactor of fans who’ve supported him every game, not just the occasional one in which they can be bothered. The change is there for all to see, and if we can apply that philosophy to all of the younger players at the football club, we’ll reap far more rewards than joining in with the bully-boys of the English press.
Believe in Raheem Sterling, he is the real deal.