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