“I don’t know how, in the midst of all the hostility, he showed such warmth.”
It is a windy Wednesday evening under the Anfield lights and Liverpool are pressing Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City into submission.
The date - 2 March, 2016 - sees Raheem Sterling’s past and present converge for the first time at the stadium following his acrimonious £49 million exit from Merseyside eight months earlier. The home crowd are antagonist; there is a routine airing of “one greedy b***ard” as well as amplified jeers whenever the forward becomes active.
Thirty seconds after the first whistle, Jon Flanagan crunches Sterling with a ferocious-but-fair tackle, which captain Jordan Henderson applauds, and for the entire opening half, the full-back has his former team-mate comfortably pocketed.
At the start of the second 45, the derision is capped by ironic cheers when Wilfried Bony replaces the England international to end his miserable evening. Sterling, vulgarities still flying in his direction, notices some of the press and backroom staff from Melwood near the tunnel and stops to greet and engage with all of them.
“He’d been booed, ridiculed, had an awful game and must have been so frustrated, yet he was still so kind,” noted one observer at the time. “I’m much older than him, and I can’t imagine I’d have handled things with as much maturity as he did.”
On Sunday, the 23-year-old will anticipate a similarly belligerent reception at Anfield as Pep Guardiola’s pacesetters attempt to end Liverpool’s 17-match unbeaten streak in all competitions.
The acerbic manner in which Sterling departed the club for City in July 2015 - doing an unsanctioned interview on his future, refusing to be part of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the Far East and Australia, agent Aidy Ward insisting his gifted, young client would not sign a new contract with them even if it was “for £700,000, £800,000 or £900,000 a week” - understandably riled supporters.
While the player’s transfer could have undoubtedly been handled in a cleaner, less corrosive way, the perception of City’s No.7 as an ungrateful “brat” - to borrow Sterling’s description of his portrayal - is distorted.
“His heart is bigger than his talent - and trust me, that’s massive,” a member of Liverpool’s Academy previously related about the lad with lightning feet that walked through Kirkby’s doors at 15, possessing tactical intelligence and a steeliness that belied his age.
“Speak to many people who worked with him and they will say they genuinely miss him. He had time for everybody, even when he moved to the first-team. You can still drop him a text now and the response would be immediate - he would help those younger than him, those who didn’t have as much as him.
“He would be playing alongside Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard the one day, then coming down to watch the kids at the Academy on his own accord.
“I’m not saying he was perfect, but none of us are. He had the court case while with the club, he’s made mistakes, like we all do, that we have to use to grow and not let it define us.
“Raheem has done that, but it is heartbreaking the way he is portrayed - especially in some of the papers. He’s such a good lad, and was always that way from a young age. The only worry was that he should have knocked around with more sensible people.”
Sterling is no saint, as per the above, and neither is he the reckless sinner he has been framed as. “If you’re doing something wrong – the times I’ve been caught doing balloons (filled with nitrous oxide), whatever, yeah, no problem. I accept if you’re a silly boy you get dealt with,” he told the Guardian last March.
“But there are these times when you’ve been thinking about football, been at home, just trying to stay out of everyone’s way, and you’re still getting stuff. I see it as I can’t win.”
It is perhaps the indicator of how much Sterling has dropped the shoulder on his troublesome days that tabloids have to resort to reporting about him driving a “filthy” Mercedes, eating a sausage roll from Greggs and shopping at Poundland.
Post-England’s embarrassment at Euro 2016, the Kingston-born star was #TheHatedOne. His placement by the gutter press as a “flop” happy to “insult fans” and “flash his wealth” weaved a long, wholly inaccurate thread that still lingers now.
Blinged-up. Lavish. Obscene. Footie Idiot. Those are just four of the adjectives that have been used in recent years to describe Sterling, who made a substantial donation to people affected by the Grenfell Tower Fire.
And so when Karl Anderson committed a racially aggravated common assault against the City speedster last month, the negative, sensationalist coverage was rightly highlighted as the kind of fuel that could flame such hatred.
That the father-of-two scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Tottenham just hours after the incident took place did not surprise another employee of Liverpool’s Academy.
“At times when he was here, they’d be situations at home in London he’d need to deal with. We’d drive there, sort it out, drive back and I’d think to myself: ‘Just how is he going to perform?’
“There were cases where we’d only get back to Liverpool at 2am and he’d have a game in the afternoon. But he was bulletproof, he would exceed expectations. All his issues disappeared once he entered the pitch.”
Despite the best attempts to reduce Sterling to being the posterboy for rashness and excess, through all the shovelling of dirt and gleeful underscoring of his faults, the multi-faceted attacker is excelling.
He has 18 goals and four assists this season, with Guardiola keen to stress City's top marksman deserves "all the credit" for the way in which he has sidestepped the negativity to thrive.
Sterling, as with any opposition player, should never find Anfield an easy experience. It would be nice, however, if he is seen for what he actually is, rather than the easily pedalled misconception.
Not just on Sunday. And at every football ground and beyond.