Ster­ling comes of age for club and coun­try as he con­quers self-doubt

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - By Sam Dean Sam Wal­lace

As is the mod­ern way with the mod­ern player, Ra­heem Ster­ling spent Fri­day af­ter­noon host­ing a ques­tion-an­dan­swer ses­sion on his In­sta­gram ac­count.

It will come as lit­tle sur­prise to hear that most of the queries were ei­ther ba­nal (“Are you ready for the derby match?”) or point­less (“Why you so short?”), but there was at least one an­swer that felt gen­uinely sig­nif­i­cant. “Your mind is your best tool,” Ster­ling wrote to a young hope­ful who wanted ad­vice on how to make it as a pro­fes­sional. “But also your worst en­emy.”

Here was Ster­ling ac­knowl­edg­ing what Pep Guardiola, his Manch­ester City man­ager, has made clear in the past few days: that it is all in Ra­heem’s head. It is the mind that has proved to be Ster­ling’s big­gest ob­sta­cle un­til this sea­son, and it is the changes in his mind­set that have al­lowed him to be­come the best English player in the Premier League this cam­paign.

Guardiola be­lieves that Ster­ling, at 23, is no longer “scared”. And Gareth South­gate, his Eng­land man­ager, has iden­ti­fied a sim­i­lar shift in men­tal­ity this sea­son, when Ster­ling has scored seven goals in 14 ap­pear­ances for City.

Those self-doubts and those lit­tle mo­ments of hes­i­ta­tion that were present as re­cently as the World Cup seem to have dis­ap­peared. “He is in out­stand­ing form,” South­gate says. “We Wayne Rooney is ex­pected to say this week that he is de­lighted to play just a small part for Eng­land in Thurs­day’s in­ter­na­tional friendly against the United States at Wem­b­ley and that at no point has he made any de­mands about what that role should be.

The for­mer Eng­land cap­tain has been in­vited back by the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion to win a 120th cap and bid farewell af­ter a 13-year have got huge be­lief in him and I think that be­lief in his own game is com­ing.”

The best ev­i­dence of Ster­ling’s de­vel­op­ment comes not from his do­mes­tic form, which has been ex­cel­lent for over a year – only Liver­pool’s Mo­hamed Salah has more goals and as­sists since the start of last sea­son – but from that per­for­mance in Seville for Eng­land last month, when he scored twice in a devastating show­ing against Spain. in­ter­na­tional ca­reer dur­ing which he broke Sir Bobby Charl­ton’s scor­ing record. The 33-year-old will clear up any con­fu­sion over the cir­cum­stances of the re­call.

Rooney has not made any stip­u­la­tions over whether he should start the game, how many min­utes he should play, which num­ber he will be al­lo­cated and whether he will cap­tain the team. He sees

“We have been happy with his per­for­mances for a long time and the miss­ing piece has been the goals,” South­gate says. “You can see what it meant to him to get the goals which he has been over­due with us. That was a big psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier over­come and he has con­tin­ued that form with his club.”

Such is Ster­ling’s ex­plo­sive­ness this sea­son, which has been re­warded with a new £300,000-a-week con­tract, that this match pri­mar­ily as a chance to say farewell and also raise aware­ness of his foun­da­tion’s work.

The FA feels that Rooney’s remarkable in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion de­serves to be recog­nised – he is the na­tion’s all-time top goalscorer with 53 and its most­capped out­field player. Rooney is now in the close sea­son for Ma­jor League Soc­cer club DC United. he looks set to be Eng­land’s most threat­en­ing player in next Sun­day’s Na­tions League clash with Croa­tia. All the talk has been about Eng­land’s re­turn­ing No10, Wayne Rooney, but it is the in­cum­bent of the shirt who should be gen­er­at­ing the most ex­cite­ment.

“With us, maybe there have been chances where you can over-think things,” South­gate says of Ster­ling. “In any sport you are at your best when play­ing with­out think­ing too much and that’s what he did [against Spain].”

The re­turn of Rooney will also high­light how Ster­ling has grown into a se­nior fig­ure in the Eng­land camp in the 14 months since the for­mer Manch­ester United striker stepped away from in­ter­na­tional foot­ball.

It was Ster­ling, for ex­am­ple, who was the first to take Jadon San­cho un­der his wing when the teenager made his de­but last month. Th­ese are small things, but they re­flect Ster­ling feel­ing in­creas­ingly val­ued and com­fort­able on the in­ter­na­tional stage, and they are fur­ther ev­i­dence that he is win­ning the bat­tle with his mind.

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