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The Sterling question: should he stay or should he go?

It seems many moons ago since we actually talked about Raheem Sterling’s footballing ability. Instead, the talk has shifted to contracts and transfers and tantrums as the England attacker agitates for a move away from Anfield. Steven Gerrard, Mr Liverpool himself, has thrown his thoughts into the debate. ‘There are millions and millions of Liverpool fans around the world who are itching to see Raheem Sterling in a Liverpool kit’, Gerrard asserts in a blatant attempt to try and guilt-trip Sterling into staying at Liverpool. Gerrard might as well have vividly described the millions of crying children that Sterling will have let down if he leaves Liverpool. ‘Raheem, for every game you play for Manchester City, a Scouser will skin a kitten.’

What it boils down to is a perception that Sterling lacks loyalty to Liverpool in wanting to move to Manchester City, but it is difficult to castigate him for wanting to join a club with genuine designs on winning the Premier League title. Loyalty in football is a strange beast. Perhaps we should vilify Sterling for having the temerity to leave Queens Park Rangers’ academy in order to join Liverpool. After all, QPR were the ones who spotted his talent and gave him his foothold in the sport; how dare he pay them back by leaving! I jest, but the sentiment endures. Should all footballers display their loyalty by becoming one-club men? Not everyone is Steven Gerrard.

To Gerrard, loyalty is everything. The former captain of Liverpool recently declared his happiness with Jordan Henderson signing a new contract, emblematic of his loyalty to the club. But, much like Gerrard at Stamford Bridge, this argument falls down. A footballer accepts the best contract available. Henderson, despite his obvious ability, is not being sought after by the world’s elite. Sterling, despite his obvious flaws, is a much more desirable coup for a Manchester City or a Paris Saint-Germain. If Real Madrid came to offer Henderson £150,000 a week and he accepted, as you would, then does that mean Henderson is disloyal? No, it means he is not an idiot. By that same virtue, signing a new contract does not definitively demarcate loyalty. Incidentally, Henderson’s appearance on the front cover of FIFA 16 might well boost his profile, although on the cover it appears that Henderson is chasing down the twinkle-toed Messi who has evaded his attempts to win the ball. FIFA just gets more and more realistic.

Gerrard has announced his disappointment with Sterling, with his refusal to participate in pre-season training admittedly worthy of denigration. He claimed that Sterling and Henderson are polar opposites; “Jordan’s so professional, he’s a winner, a great lad.” Professional and a great lad he may well be, but a winner of what exactly? His Liverpool honours total to an underwhelming victory in the 2012 League Cup Final. Against Cardiff City. On penalties. Sterling is fully justified in wanting to leave Liverpool in order to win trophies. A footballer’s career is not about winning trophies necessarily, but about being content with one’s achievements. Unless I am mistaken, it is very contenting to be able to win trophies.

Sterling is not showing Liverpool much respect at the moment.
Sterling is not showing Liverpool much respect at the moment.

The 2013/14 season was the chance for Liverpool to win a title and cement their place as a challenger for seasons to come. Instead, they buckled under the pressure, and Brendan Rodgers’ subsequent signings have shown no indication of another title surge. Rickie Lambert, £4.5m. Adam Lallana £25m. Lazar Markovic, £20m. Dejan Lovren, £20m. Mario Balotelli, £16m. Losing Luis Suarez? Priceless. The likes of Lallana and Markovic could well resurge from their disappointing first season, and with new additions James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino, there is certainly hope that Liverpool could at the very least have a sniff of a top four place. But why would Sterling show ‘loyalty’ to a manager that bottled a championship and tried to compensate for it by signing Balotelli? It does not make sense. Sterling has other options, and it would be foolish not to utilise them.

Of course, there are better ways to go about it than by pulling out of Liverpool’s pre-season tour. Talk about spitting diamond-encrusted dummies out of a golden pram. Also, if Sterling’s illness that forced him to miss the first two days of pre-season training is genuine then that is a most unfortunate piece of timing. Sterling has reportedly cited a breakdown of his relationship with Brendan Rodgers as the motivation behind leaving. If an employee does not like their boss, of course they want to leave. Imagine your accountant Gary was being head-hunted by a more prestigious firm, and was not particularly fond of his current boss either. Gary wants to move firm; no resentment can surely be directed towards our Gazza. No, his clients at the smaller firm must trust that Gary will be suitably replaced, and that Gary will be much happier in his new job. People feel far more of an emotional connection with their footballers than with their accountants, but that is the football fan’s problem to deal with. It would be preferable for Sterling to treat the contract that he signed with respect, and see out its remainder with dignity and class. Alas, a footballer’s career is relatively short compared to an accountant’s, with Sterling probably having a maximum of fifteen more years playing at the top level. It is hard to begrudge him for not wanting to waste a single year being unhappy.

In the 2013/14 season Sterling managed nine goals from thirty-three shots. Last season, with pressure to step into Suarez’s boots, Sterling racked up seven goals from sixty-two shots. There are two significant conclusions to draw from these statistics; Sterling struggled being the main man in a struggling Liverpool team, and, unsurprisingly, Sterling blossoms when surrounded by players of world-class quality. Not many clubs can boast world-class players… but Manchester City can. Imagine a front three of Aguero, Silva and Sterling. Imagine ASS. That is a striking combination that can hold a candle to the SSS of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Despite flitting in and out of games last season like a channel-hopper, Sterling’s vast potential is undeniable.

‘Show me love and I’m loyal’ ponders that great philosopher Daniel Sturridge. I think what he means is that if you are happy somewhere, then you will not want to leave. If you are unhappy, then you want out. Liverpool cannot fulfil Sterling’s ambitions, ambitions fuelled by the world’s leading clubs showing their interest in him. More money was not enough to make Sterling sign a new contract, demonstrating his ambitions are not fiscal. Pulling out of the pre-season tour is childish and pathetic, and Sterling has tarnished his reputation with that move. Yet if Liverpool fans wanted Raheem Sterling to show more affinity to the club, they probably should not have booed him for showing a bit of ambition.