After 337 appearances, 131 goals and 12 major trophies, Raheem Sterling’s time as a Manchester City player has come to an end.
To the tune of much fanfare, the prolific forward will make the switch to Chelsea in a deal worth between £47.5 million and £50 million, while ending a seven-year stay in East Manchester. Part of the Blues' most successful era of all time, Sterling's legacy in East Manchester remains up for debate, with some questioning his rank amongst other City legends.
Deciphering his contributions appears simple on the surface, but more complex in practice. Yet, after over half a decade in blue, the short answer is clear. Sterling, could, and in truth should, be placed amongst the pantheon of greats to play for City.
Raheem Sterling: A new frontier
Bursting down the right, before cutting inside and being hacked down by Sunderland’s Patrick van Aanholt, it had taken Sterling less than a minute to announce himself under Pep Guardiola. Trotting over to the scene, arm stretched out in front pointing to the spot, there were no protests towards referee Bobby Madley’s decision to award City a penalty kick.
The 2016/17 opening day triumph against Sunderland may not have been the most convincing victory in the end, but it did mark the start of something special for Sterling in a City shirt. Lift off.
Sergio Aguero converted the spot-kick, Jermain Defoe equalised for Sunderland in the second half, before a late own goal from ex-Manchester United defender Paddy McNair gave City the win. Agricultural, but the start of a new era for Sterling and City.
The Jamaican-born forward may have arrived from Liverpool for £44 million a year earlier, but the feeling was Sterling's signing was the latest of many foundations being laid for Guardiola’s imminent arrival in East Manchester the following season. Never really finding a place in Manuel Pellegrini’s rigid 4-2-3-1 system, Sterling ended his debut City season with just eight-goal contributions across 31 Premier League matches.
A fair return, but by no means had Sterling’s performances reflected the talent displayed during his time at Liverpool. Instead, Guardiola’s appointment as City boss was the catalyst Sterling needed to go on and cement himself as one of the club’s greatest ever servants.
As the curtain falls on Sterling’s seven-year spell in East Manchester, he leaves behind a City career punctuated by success and one littered with trophies. Four Premier League titles, five League Cups, one FA Cup and over 200 goal contributions are merely a footnote on what was a blistering seven years in blue.
Raheem Sterling: More than just a footballer
To understand Raheem Sterling as a footballer, first, you must appreciate Raheem Sterling as a person. Born in Jamaica to mother and former athlete Nadine Clarke, a young Sterling, aged just two years old was present when his father was gunned down in a suspected gang attack.
A moment in which the fabric of Sterling’s future would change forever, he and his mother soon left Jamaica for England’s capital city, where the pair forged a new life. By no means a luxurious upbringing, Sterling grew up in the shadow of the new Wembley Stadium being built in North London, while impressing on the fields below with his footballing ability.
As the years went by and Sterling’s profile as a footballer increased, from time as a youth player with Queens Park Rangers, before a breakthrough move to Liverpool aged 16 and eventually the transfer to City in 2015, a side-show to his life began to play out in the media circus.
After England’s surprise exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of minnows Iceland, instead of attributing the blame to the root of the cause, Sterling found himself in the post-tournament headlines. One newspaper front page ran with the title “Obscene Raheem”, labelling the City winger as an “England flop” and criticising him for a flashy “show of wealth” that “insulted” England fans.
The then 21-year-old had posted a video on social media of a newly decorated bathroom in a house he’d purchased for his mum. Badly timed, given the proximity to England’s disappointing Euro 2016 campaign? Potentially. But it was no more than a show of love from an adoring son, to the mother who had presented him with an opportunity in life.
It didn’t stop there. In the build-up to the following international tournament, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Sterling once again found himself on the front page of newspapers, having been pictured with an M16 assault rifle tattooed to his leg. Published without context or comment from Sterling himself, there was understandable criticism towards the tattoo, with anti-gun campaigners calling for his removal from the England World Cup squad.
Taking to social media to offer an explanation, Sterling revealed the tattoo was unfinished, but upon completion, it would act as a tribute to his late father, who of course, was murdered when he was a child. The tattoo's placement held significance too, as it appeared on his right leg - the one Sterling typically shoots with.
Sterling featured heavily for England in the 2018 World Cup, where Gareth Southgate’s side reached their first international semi-final since 1996. It would be a similar case three years later at the European Championships, where Sterling’s three goals helped guide England to the tournament's final. It wasn’t to be for England, or the ‘Boy from Brent’ - an affectionate nickname given to Sterling as a nod to the borough of London he grew up in - at Wembley against Italy, but his exploits in a Three Lions shirt had helped endear himself to the English public.
Raheem Sterling: Fighting the battle
A long time in the making, the eventual admiration Sterling started to receive better reflected his contributions for both club and country. As a City player, Sterling had been subject to various incidents of booing from opposition supporters, perhaps most notably at Burnley’s Turf Moor in November 2016. Chants of “you let your country down”, amongst other verbal attacks echoed around the four-sided 21,000-seater stadium every time Sterling received possession, with suggestions of racially motivated undertones from the Burnley crowd.
Stuart Brennan, then of the Manchester Evening News, highlighted Burnley as a town that had once elected eight councillors from the British National Party – a far-right organisation vehemently opposed to immigration and multiculturism. Unsubstantiated claims maybe, but it wouldn’t be the first or last time Sterling was subject to racist abuse while playing in the Premier League.
Collecting the ball from behind the Matthew Harding Stand, a section of the Stamford Bridge crowd began shouting and gesticulating towards Sterling’s way. After an investigation held by Chelsea concluded one of the fans in question engaged in racist abuse, the club handed a lifetime ban to the supporter. Yet, the continued attacks on Sterling came as little surprise, given the way in which his life from an early age had been covered.
Castigated by his own countrymen, Sterling refused to sit back and accept the attacks as a reality, instead using his platform to combat discrimination. On the pitch, Sterling had laughed in the face of the racism coming from the Chelsea end, not because he found the incident particularly funny, but because it had become the norm.
Once again using social media to address the issue, Sterling posted two screenshots of Daily Mail articles, one criticising Tosin Adarabioyo for buying his mother a new house, and the other praising Phil Foden for doing exactly the same. In his own words, the contrast in reporting "fuelled racism and aggressive behaviour", despite both having "done the right thing" by helping out their parents.
Sterling's transformation from a promising starlet on the pitch, to the voice of the black youth of tomorrow off it, may not have been by design, but it was one that continued to grow as his profile in both areas did too.
Raheem Sterling: Building a legacy
It's remarkable, given the success Sterling has achieved in his time as a footballer, how much of his career is overshadowed by events that took place away from the game. Even still, after seven illustrious years in blue, and having amassed a trophy cabinet only rivalled the game’s greats, Sterling’s exit from East Manchester remains polarising amongst the City faithful.
Much like the recently departed Gabriel Jesus, a question of ‘what if’ hangs over the head of Sterling. An unquestionable talent, whose best years as a player have helped deliver immeasurable success to the club, a feeling of incomplete potential has plagued his final years at City. An inevitable end, rather than a shock exit, Sterling’s departure feels like the final chapter in a storyline between two characters who were beginning to resent each other.
The circumstance between how this came to be differs on whichever side of the fence you stand on. Sterling and his entourage will argue that, in the prime of his career, he deserved a higher rank within the City side, while being guaranteed a regular starting spot in the Blues’ XI. For Guardiola, a meritocrat, the version of events will no doubt be different. There is truth in the fact inconsistency has troubled Sterling’s performances over the last 18 months and in a squad as competitive as City’s, there is no benefit gained from assuring any player promises around game time.
As the news begins to filter in and the realisation that Sterling’s seven-year spell as a City player is over, there is an understandable feeling of frustration within the Blues faithful. Despite the countless goals, trophies and achievements, there will forever be that sense of what could’ve been for Sterling in a City shirt.
While the move will still feel raw for some City supporters, it’s important as the dust settles, history remembers Sterling’s time as a Blue fondly. Of the players to play under Guardiola in the Catalan’s illustrious managerial career, only Lionel Messi and Aguero have netted more goals. As for assists, Messi rather predictably sits above Sterling, with ex-City teammate Kevin De Bruyne topping the list. Combine both goals and assists, only seven-time Ballon d'Or Messi sits above the England international.
The numbers, alongside the fact Sterling sits inside the top-10 goalscorers in City’s history, suggest his time in East Manchester was nothing more than a glittering success. Yet for most, the Jamaican-born forward isn’t held in the same regard as others with a similar list of achievements in Blue.
Part of that is down to some believing he isn’t remembered for many iconic moments in a City shirt, akin to Aguero’s last-gasp title-winning strike against Queens Park Rangers in 2012, or Yaya Toure’s FA Cup heroics a year earlier. The simple response is, who does?
Even still, Sterling did provide City with memories that mattered, including a remarkable last-minute winner against Southampton in 2017/18 and a brace during City’s record-equalling 6-0 FA Cup Final victory over Watford the following season. In short, dismissing Sterling’s contributions at City as bit part is nothing more than a gross misjudgement of the truth.
There should be no bad blood between City as a club, its supporters and Sterling himself. A mutualistic relationship between one of England’s brightest ever exports and one of the Premier League’s behemoths, where regardless of the circumstance, all parties have benefited greatly.
It may not have ended in the fairy-tale fashion of those that came before, but for Raheem Sterling, the two-year-old boy who witnessed his father murdered in front of his eyes, his legacy as a footballer will forever stretch beyond just the pitch.
Written by: @AmosMurphy_