From ‘hated one’ to national treasure… Gareth Southgate on Raheem Sterling’s rise
Raheem Sterling once labelled himself the ‘hated one’ after feeling like he had become an enemy of the state.
But just over three seasons later the England and Manchester City superstar has transformed himself into a national treasure we can’t get enough of.
That’s the view of Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate, who believes the public opinion of Sterling has been turned upside down thanks to the growing maturity and commanding performances of the man himself.
Sterling might still only be 24 but it feels like he’s been around for ages – and his road to the top has never been smooth.
He has suffered racist abuse, endless criticism for having a gun tattooed on his leg, lambasted for how much he earns and seen his private life and talent questioned on a constant basis.
Things got so bad during Euro 2016 in France that Sterling took to Instagram to claim he was despised, after irate fans labelled him ‘useless’ and ‘awful’ and urged him to retire.
Sterling was also targeted following the World Cup in Russia, despite helping the Three Lions reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
Those same bullies should be glad he didn’t pack it all in, considering Sterling has now become Southgate’s most important and influential star and cemented this stature with another spellbinding performance in England’s 5-3 win over Kosovo in Southampton.
Southgate believes Sterling is heading towards having the sort of iconic status England’s greats have had – and that the nation is fortunate to have him.
He said: “For me it’s lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him. We have always picked him. There have been times where he has not played well and we have taken him off and that has been the right thing, but he has always been integral to the way we want to play. But his performance is at the highest level.
“He got the goals in Spain in the first game after the World Cup for him really. I think it was such a huge weight lifted for him, he almost jumped six foot in the stadium, didn’t he?
“So I think from that moment (things changed), because he did come home a bit sad after the World Cup, there’s no hiding from that. He didn’t deserve to feel that way, so it’s lovely to see the recognition he’s getting and how much extra I think that’s bringing out of him.
“Everyone wants to be liked, don’t they? Players give their all – and he’s a player that has always given his all.
“You know how much it means to him, how much he wants to do well. So, I think it’s for him to reflect on how he might of felt back then, but for me, it’s just lovely to see a young man establishing himself at the real top table in the game. We feel very lucky as a group of staff to have him as one of ours.”
Southgate has revealed Sterling has become one of the leaders in the dressing room, someone who talks sense instead of talking for the sake of it and is a huge influence on those around him.
But what impresses Southgate even more is Sterling’s desire to keep on winning at club and international level, despite all the success he’d had so far.
He said: “He’s showing real maturity around the camp. I think that he is becoming a big influence with some of the other leaders in terms of how we do things.
“When I have the leadership group in, he’s very clear but thoughtful on his opinions. If there are things that he thinks can be better with the mentality of the players or the way that we’ve set the week out, he’ll thoughtfully put ideas across. He doesn’t just sit and complain.
“If you look at the reaction of the crowd when he gets the ball and the excitement young and old have, watching him play, it’s great. He’s now a two-time Premier League winner, so the honours are starting to stack up. But all that has done is give him the hunger to go on further.”
With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the twilight of their astonishing careers, the footballing world will be needing a new superstar.
Sterling could be the one to step-up and Southgate believes his main man has the potential to reach the same levels of achievement and adulation.
He added: “Well, in terms of can he fulfil it, he’ll give himself every chance of doing that. There are obviously some outstanding players around like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
“But, he will give himself every chance, because he’s got the drive, he’s got the professionalism, he’s got the ability and he’s physically and mentally strong.”