As the Raheem Sterling Saga meandered to its conclusion with the agreement of a £49 million between Manchester City and Liverpool, the reaction in the media – traditional and social – was utterly predictable. The consensus was that at price, Sterling was too expensive; yet another overpriced golden talent ultimately destined for the scrapheap at City.
After all, the Etihad is the dreaded place where young English dreams go to die; Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair would attest to this fact, cursing the day they swapped cozy mid-table surroundings for the cutthroat competitive environment of Manchester.
The transfer, in more ways than one, has come as a relief to all involved, the end of a very modern and messy negotiation that no one has come out of smelling exactly of freshly harvested roses. Aidy Ward, Sterling’s agent, has gone from one PR catastrophe to the other, sending ill-advised missives through friendly sources in the media.
His actions have presumably cost him the services of another client, Saido Beharino, but he will point to a fat commission and explain to anyone interested enough that the end justifies the means.
Liverpool, its fans and ex-players turned pundits have also handled the situation in the worst possible manner. From ex-players, through rose-tinted glasses, implying a move to City would prove a death knell to his fledgling career to the rogue elements barracking the player with vile abuse online, it has been a sorry state of affairs.
While it is difficult to accurately determine how much players actually influence these things amid a sea of agents and accountants occupying their senses, to absolve Sterling of any blame would be incredibly naïve.
The BBC interview in April in which he demanded not to be seen as a ‘money-grabbing 20-year-old’ had exactly the opposite effect. His refusal to go through the proper channel of seeking a transfer – handing in a transfer request – leaves much to be desired. With an agreement reached, it is important not to lose sight of important facets of the transfer of the world’s 12th most expensive footballer.
Firstly, there is the argument that Sterling is expensive, which he is, until a thorough deconstruction of the forces at play are taken into account. Last summer, Manchester United paid £30 million for the services of Luke Shaw from Southampton and Arsenal parted with £16 million to the same club for Calum Chambers.
Eyebrows were understandably raised, as these fees were not a true representation of the current abilities of the players involved. Shaw and Chambers had made 82 Premier League appearances between them before their big money moves and only Shaw had made an appearance for Roy Hodgson’s England side.
But to expect transfer fees to be a true measurement of abilities in this hyper-inflated, modern-day transfer market devoid of logic would be an extremely facile conclusion. Sterling, at 20, is massively talented and City have taken a punt on his potential. It’s not exactly a shot in the dark as Sterling’s qualities are obvious to anyone who hasn’t allowed partisanship cloud their judgment.
It of course helps that all three are British in a world where Greg Dyke’s home-grown quota is waiting to be filled, a £49 million valuation seems par for an exciting, young English attacker when similar fees have been paid for defenders. After all, it is an unwritten rule that attackers are significantly costlier than defenders.
It may be further testament that Dyke’s vaunted home-grown rule isn’t the panacea to the English national team’s woes as the man himself believes and is actually creating a system where players are valued way above their true worth but it is a situation that will continue to play out for as long as quotas remain.
The ‘British premium’ isn’t a new phenomenon and perhaps on a slightly lower level, in 2011, Sunderland paid Ipswich £8 million – rising to £12 million – for Connor Wickham. Clubs these days not only buy for what players are presently but what they hope these players will become in the future.
The second and most important facet of the transfer, however, is the playing angle of it all. The agreement seems to be that Sterling has effectively gone into early semi-retirement at City, counting his money on the bench and sliding into untold mediocrity.
Rodwell and Sinclair have failed before him and the expectation is that he will, too. That, though, does a great disservice to the player Sterling has become in the years since he first appeared on the scene as a scrawny little kid, all quick feet and teenage verve.
In the years that followed, Sterling developed immensely under Brendan Rodgers’s watch, scurrying around the pitch with malevolent intent, charging towards goal, leaving defenders in his wake. His goalscoring record doesn’t exactly shout from the rooftops but at 20, there is ample time to hone his skillset.
Playing with better players and senior figures has immeasurable impact on young players, an experience Liverpool fans are all too aware of. Sterling’s best came in the 2013/14 season when Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez when on the same wavelength as he was. It was this rarefied mix of pace, precision and trickery that almost delivered an elusive league title to Anfield. It is a trident that can be formed again at the Etihad and playing alongside Sergio Agüero and David Silva will be of considerable benefit to Sterling.
The Rodwell/Sinclair myth also falls flat under close scrutiny, considering both were signed more for the colour of their passports rather than their footballing abilities and it is indicative that of the four players signed by City that summer – Javi Garcia and Matija Nastasic are the others – none remain at the club. Roberto Mancini and Brian Marwood famously fell out as a result of the latter’s failure to land Mancini’s targets and City went on to lose the League by a country mile to a Robin van Persie-inspired United.
Sterling emerged as City’s leading target and watching Jesus Navas hoof crosses and cut-backs with disturbing regularity into the nearest defender last season makes it obvious that the England international will be an important member of City’s first team. Even the maverick genius that is Samir Nasri has blown hot and cold for City, meaning Sterling will be afforded opportunities in a variety of positions across the front three.
The tactic employed by Sterling’s detractors has been to highlight the plight of players, for varying reasons, who failed to make the grade at the highest level, whilst comfortably ignoring the compelling cases made by several young English players that took a leap of faith into the unknown and became elite level footballers in the process.
Wayne Rooney first burst unto the scene armed with a potent cocktail of flair, pace and power as a starry-eyed teenager at Everton and five days before turning 17, he left Arsène Wenger purring following his last minute winner against Arsenal. In a situation eerily similar to Sterling’s, he rejected a new deal and forced through a £25.6m move to Manchester United.
Despite his seeming ability to start a fight in an empty room through fits of uncontrolled rage during his early United days, Rooney has grown into a world class footballer and modern legend at United. Given his obvious talent, there’s nothing stopping from Sterling from emulating Rooney’s feats.
In the end, the determination of player value is an entirely arbitrary concept dependent on factors far beyond the footballer’s actual talent, which ultimately makes it an exercise in futility. Despite Liverpool’s best protestations, this messy affair has turned out to be the rarest of things; a transfer where all parties go home, perhaps grudgingly, happy.
Liverpool have millions to re-invest with and Sterling’s dreams of playing for a Champions League club have been actualized. Now is the time to make it all worth it.