By Liam Twomey
He may only have played eight times in 2013, his lightning progress hampered by a lingering thigh injury, but it is still a huge surprise Raheem Sterling was not among the names revealed to be on the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist by chief executive Gordon Taylor on Friday.
Even for those not of a Liverpool persuasion, Sterling’s full Premier League debut, against holders Manchester City at Anfield in August, was thrilling. At just 17 years, eight months and eight days, the fearless youngster tormented the usually excellent Pablo Zabaleta with dizzying pace, trickery and awareness, playing the entire 95 minutes.
Such an accomplished display against top opposition provided a fitting introduction for many to a special talent, and Sterling remembers it fondly. “It was probably my best performance,” he tells Goal.com. “Purely because it was my first game, with so much pressure and against last season’s champions. I was proud of myself afterwards.
|STERLING'S SEASON SO FAR
In the weeks that followed, Sterling quickly established himself as one of the unlikelier key figures in Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool revolution, featuring regularly on the domestic front and in Europe.
“At the start of the season the manager said to all the young players that if we did well in training and had the right commitment and attitude, he wouldn’t be afraid to throw us in, no matter what our age,” he added.
“But I didn’t expect to play so many games. I thought I’d make a few sub appearances. It’s great to be given a chance, and I’ve got to thank the manager. I’m really grateful.”
By the time he scored his first senior goal, the winner against Reading at Anfield in late October, heads were already turning. Both Manchester giants and Arsenal were again linked with the wonderkid they had once tracked in QPR’s youth ranks, but Liverpool had other ideas.
On December 21, three days after his 18th birthday, Sterling signed a new five-year deal, complete with a wage hike which reflected his status as a rapidly developing first-team squad member and, as of a month earlier, the fifth-youngest England debutant in history.
The 4-2 friendly defeat the Three Lions suffered in Stockholm will be remembered by most for a masterful four-goal display from one Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but for Sterling it will forever stick in the mind for different reasons. “It was surprising, really,” he confesses. “I didn’t expect to start, and to be involved in a game like that was a real bonus for me, a real achievement.
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Yet after a stunning first five months of the campaign, the dawning of 2013 brought a halt to Sterling’s ascent. Rodgers, fearful of burning out one of his most prized young assets, removed the teenager from his starting XI and even granted him a week’s holiday to recuperate.
Such a decision might have angered many football-mad youngsters, but Sterling is level-headed enough to see the logic. “Playing so many games at such a young age is tough,” he admits. “Old school people say you should just get on with it and stop moaning, but it’s a lot to ask of a young lad to be playing 90 minutes every week, so it’s been good to get a break.”
Liverpool academy director Frank McParland, who grew to know Sterling well before his graduation to the first team, believes Rodgers’ handling of his talented young charge has been inspired. “He was still having good games, so Brendan did really well to see he was tired, even though he’s with him every day,” he told Goal.com.
“It’s very important to look after young players, because to play between 40 and 60 games in your first season would be extraordinary.
“You have to manage them well, and Brendan has done a very good job with Raheem.”
Now only injury is preventing Sterling from shining once more, but he is determined not to risk aggravating his thigh problem by returning to action too soon. “The physios haven’t given me a set date for when I’ll be back, but hopefully I’ll be fully fit for next season,” he reveals. “That’s the main thing for me right now.”
In the long term, McParland is confident Sterling has a bright future for club and country. “I think he can play for Liverpool and England for many years,” he insists.
“The pace is the thing. It’s extraordinary. He’s as quick running with the ball as without the ball. But it’s down to him now. He’s been given the opportunity and played over 30 games in the first team. It’s about how much he wants it and, knowing the boy as I do, I know he does.
“It’s about him doing the right things every day, and about listening to the manager. If he keeps improving and working hard, he’s going to have a fantastic career at Liverpool.”
Raheem Sterling was speaking at the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops II Uprising. Available now to download exclusively on Xbox LIVE, Black Ops II Uprising contains four new multiplayer maps, Magma, Encore, Vertigo and Studio – a remake of “Firing Range” a fan-favourite multiplayer map from the original Call of Duty: Black Ops. The Uprising DLC also features new Zombies map “Mob of the Dead”, set in Alcatraz where mobster prisoners battle to escape the undead.
For more information on Call of Duty: Black Ops II and the new Uprising content visit www.callofduty.com/blackops2.
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