By David Lynch at Anfield
As the squads were announced for Liverpool’s friendly clash with Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday, there was tangible disappointment amongst the assembled press at the omission of Joe Allen.
The Wales international had been confirmed as the club’s latest acquisition on Friday but a late snag regarding paperwork denied him an Anfield debut and the journalists a chance to make their early assessments.
Yet, within just three minutes of the game kicking off, a new angle had been carved, Allen had become irrelevant – and all thanks to the right boot of Raheem Sterling.
The 17-year-old winger, making his first senior start at one of England’s most famous football cathedrals, cut inside Daniel Schwaab and curled to the far corner with just seconds on the clock to announce his arrival in some style.
There had been whispers of the youngster’s potential but, finally, here was evidence for the less initiated fan, a glimpse of what could be. Manager Brendan Rodgers was of course glowing about the youngster in his post-match press conference, saying: "He showed the imagination and creativity that I love – the cut inside and a wonderful finish.”
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Jamaican-born Sterling was signed by Rafael Benitez from QPR in February 2010 for an initial fee of £600,000 amidst rumours that he insisted the Rs turn down a larger bid from Chelsea so that he might join the Reds. Though the Loftus Road outfit were willing to bend to that demand, their acknowledgement of his potential saw them install several clauses which could see the transfer fee rise to £5 million.
The winger waited seven months before making his debut for the Reds first team, in a 2010 friendly defeat at the hands of Borussia Monchengladbach at the age of just 15. However, this was not a period of hope at the Merseyside club, as they endured a disastrous start to the season under Roy Hodgson before his unceremonious sacking upon the arrival of new owners Fenway Sports Group.
Following Kenny Dalglish’s whirlwind appointment in December, Sterling wasted no time in impressing his new boss, scoring five goals in a 9-0 thrashing of Southend’s Under-18s in the FA Youth Cup. Dalglish had been familiar with Sterling due to his previous role as an ambassador for the club’s youth academy but this performance would surely have surprised even him.
This was a 16-year-old showing he was already outgrowing those around him despite his diminutive stature; he just looked too good. But Dalglish, rather wisely, waited until the stakes were decidedly lower to give his man a competitive debut. Still, Sterling became the club’s second-youngest player in a competitive appearance as he replaced Dirk Kuyt during a frustrating 2-1 Premier League defeat to Wigan.
Despite his subsequent failure to convert substitute appearances into starts as Dalglish took a safety first approach, Sterling regularly travelled with the senior squad in order to grow accustomed to what was to be expected of him in the future.
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Ultimately, however, Dalglish’s results with the senior squad cost him the Anfield hot seat, meaning the work he had started with Sterling was to be finished by another man. The former England Under-17 international might rightly have felt his position could be threatened by the arrival of a new manager. But he need not have worried.
In Rodgers, a man to whom width, pace and imagination are basic requirements, Sterling has the perfect boss to oversee the final stages of his journey to the first team. This was a path which was previously well-worn by the likes of Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard until a recent stagnation which compelled Benitez to completely revolutionise the set-up in the form of several high-profile sackings and appointments.
Despite the positivity at the time, the arrival of former Barcelona youth directors Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell often felt like an ill fit under the cautious Benitez. The duo had been forced to compromise with the obstinate Spaniard over the adoption of a “more English” 4-2-3-1 system rather than the 4-3-3 they had preached in Catalunya. Yet in Rodgers, already the fourth manager they have worked with at the club, they may just have a kindred spirit – a student of the beautiful game as translated into that famed Spanish dialect.
And all of this will benefit Sterling, an Englishman whose attributes make him the perfect fit for playing in the rather ‘un-English’ wide positions either side of the 39-year-old’s preferred set-up.
Of course, such hype regarding a teenager can do him no good. We are so often told of the perils of expecting too much too early, the chances of burnout or ego-driven failure. But Liverpool fans will have to try pretty hard to keep a lid on things with every further inevitable contribution Sterling makes.
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