This the story of Raheem Sterling and how he made his dreams come true.
Brent is a place where you can hear a hundred languages. It is where backgrounds and ethnicities mix into an amalgam. The streets are vibrant. There are Eastern European markets, Caribbean chicken shops and Asian restaurants.
In Brent no one cares about your creed or where you’re from. In the cages which blot the borough, kids of all backgrounds thwack the ball with their best efforts. The only thing that matters here is whether you’re good enough.
Towering above them, like a mythical wreath is the Wembley arch. The enormous structure casts a shadow over the borough. You can see it from every nook and cranny, look up to the sky and there it is. For the kids in the cages who aspire to make it, there is no greater inspiration. It is a constant reminder of a seemingly tangible dream.
Raheem Sterling was one of those kids. He played in the cages with his mates. He’d kick a ball about under the shadows of the ominous arch and the whole time he dreamt of the sweet Wembley turf.
At an early age, his life had been a whirlwind. He lost his dad before he could even fathom who a dad really was. His mum, Nadine, left shortly after in search of a better life for her kids.
‘Thank god I had football.’ Raheem says in his memoir at the Players Tribune. Not because he would have otherwise gone down the wrong path, but because it offered a distraction.
When you play on the streets, you forget about your mum and dad. You don’t miss the hugs and the kisses. All you care about is the ball. You want to beat your mates, and you want to score in between the makeshift goalposts like your life depended on it. Football can be the perfect antidote to pain. Especially when things are going well.
For Raheem, who quickly developed a talent for the game, it is fair to say things normally went well.
Football became a passion and a solace. A skill to master and something to ponder to drown out the infiltrating sorrow.
By the time he reunited with his mother at last, the passion for the game had been deeply ingrained in him. It became an obsession.
Chris Beschi, a former teacher remembers Sterling well from his early years.
‘He was a very little, very cute young man. Really smart, creative, kind and smiley. He was definitely one of those kids you would describe as a cute one.’ Chris tells the First Time Finish.
‘We used to have long football sessions at the school with a mix of adults and kids and Raheem was often more like one of the adults on the team in terms of balance. He played with a maturity well beyond his years.’
Even in those early years it was clear, Sterling had a talent. Beschi could spot it right away.
‘He was phenomenally good and what made him so good is that even though he was that kid who could run past the whole team and score something like 32 goals in an hour, he also had the maturity to pass the ball and play as part of the team. He wasn’t always the one who had to put the ball into the back of the net but he also enjoyed doing that very regularly. And the whole time he played with a grin. There was such a joy that he got from playing and being good.’
At the time, England’s football colosseum which encloses the borough was still in its construction.
The school, situated only a five minute walk away, would take Raheem and his peers to the site on a regular basis to watch Wembley grow from the ground up. They would take photographs and sketches.
‘It was definitely something he looked forward to and enjoyed doing.’
As Wembley grew, so did Raheem Sterling. The undeniable talent which was so obvious for Beschi was quickly spotted by others who were paid to find players like Raheem.
QPR scout John Creith remembers him well.
‘I first saw Raheem in a school cup match. This little lad was running the show and we were finding it hard to cope with him. At the end of the game I approached his teacher, Bob Smith, about Raheem coming to QPR and Raheem laughed.’
Raheem didn’t believe it. But Creith did. He was certain he found someone special. It was the kind of instinct that you had to follow up in his profession. Creith was gripped.
He discovered Sterling’s Sunday league club, Alpha Omega, played on the Wembley Met Fields which were just a stone’s throw away from Wembley itself and he didn’t hesitate. He watched Raheem strutting his stuff in the shadows of the Wembley arch with awe.
‘Once again Raheem stood out,’ Creith recounts. There were some doubts however. A fellow scout raised concerns about Raheem’s height. But Creith was adamant.
‘I told him his ability and desire far outweighs that and we need to get him to QPR.’
It didn’t take long for Creith to speak to Raheem and arrange a session with the London based outfit.
‘He’s small isn’t he?’ Was the first impression of Raheem at the club, Creith recounts, but once again he stayed affirmative in his response.
‘Yes but he’s going to go far, trust me.’
And Creith was right. Soon people stopped questioning Raheem’s height and watched him with batted eyes instead. Sterling rose through the ranks at an unprecedented pace. The kind which people took notice of.
‘He motivated players around him to up their performance level such was his desire to win.’ Creith recalls.
While things seemed easy on the surface, QPR would be nicknamed Raheem Park Rangers because of Sterling’s ability to win games single-handedly, it was far from that.
To get to training, Sterling and his sister had to commute all the way to Heathrow and take three busses.
“We’d leave at 3:15 and get home at 11 p.m. Every. Single. Day.” Sterling recalls in the Players Tribune.
It was a gruelling routine. School. Buses. Football. Buses. Repeat.
But the whole time, the Wembley arch towered above his estate to remind him of his dream.
Creith knew his determination and work ethic would take Sterling far.
‘Raheem loved football, he had not had an easy life and football was his outlet. It wasn’t just his ability that made him stand out, for me his desire, his will to win, his impact on the game consistently, his character, all of these shone through and I knew that it would take him far.’
There is a clip of Raheem on the Soccer AM skill-show in his QPR strip and aside from the mesmerising tricks and flicks, the infectious smile stands out the most. Sterling loved the ball at his feet. It was a rush, the sort of joy that is hard to explain. The ball was his muse. It got him going. The more tricks he did, the bigger the smile grew.
At QPR, Sterling became so good the London outfit could no longer keep their prized asset at bay Creith admits.
“No matter who he played against, size or ability of his opponents he had no fear and wanted to win. Raheem was a great influence and an example to those around him. He was always able to help bring out the best in his team with his energy and work ethic on the pitch. Other clubs quickly took notice of Raheem including Liverpool and Arsenal.’
Liverpool, the giants where players like Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Steve McManaman honed their craft, ended up being the successful party. They paid a rumoured £1 million for the 14 year old.
Buses changed to trains and the blue strip to red. Sterling would train on weekdays and visit his mother on the weekends from Liverpool.
In Liverpool’s Kirkby complex, the people of Merseyside quickly realised they had someone special on their hands. Sterling netted on his debut for the U18s dancing through a thicket of defenders before he unleashed a deflected shot into the top corner.
The goals just kept coming after that. Comparisons to the former Liverpool greats came with them as well. The next John Barnes. The next Owen. But Sterling was already on a league of his own.
Krisztian Adorjan an academy teammate spent numerous minutes on the pitch with Sterling in Liverpool’s academy complex.
‘He was a really humble guy,’ Krisztian recalls. ‘He was confident in his ability and he knew he was a good player but he never showed it off. You could see right away he was going to become a star because of his pace which made him stand out from the others.’
Sterling hadn’t even been at the club for a full year when he made his Anfield debut on the final game of Liverpool’s pre-season in 2010. The then 15 year old darted around Borussia Monchengladbach’s defence for six minutes against men twice his age and he got a little pat on the back from Roy Hodgson at the end. The Liverpool boss was impressed. Raheem’s first Anfield outing would leave an indelible mark in Hodgson’s head.
His next Anfield appearance came almost a year later. The victims this time were Southend United. Sterling waltzed through their defence five times and each time he nestled the ball into the back of the net with a tranquil swagger as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
The kid from Brent went from playing on the fields and cages in the shadow of Wembley to hallowed grounds.
Mexico was next. Playing at the World Cup was a special moment in the 16 year old’s career.
England didn’t get far in the U17 tournament, but Sterling left on a good note scoring twice in four games. He got a taste and he wanted more.
Another year would pass in which he tormented academy defenders across the country before he would get his chance at Anfield. This time it was for real. No messing about it was proper adult stuff.
He became just the third youngest player for Liverpool when Kenny Dalglish sent him on against Wigan. It elicited the loudest cheer in the match with the Reds slumping to an abysmal defeat. But Sterling was lively in his brief spell on the turf and he made his mark.
You know what happened next. Brendan Rogders came, he told him to steady (allegedly) and then Sterling became one of the best players of his generation. England debut at 17 given to him by none other than Roy Hodgson. Forming one of the most lethal front threes in Premier League history with Sturridge and Suarez. Leaving for City and winning absolutely everything in English football scoring buckets full of goals in the process. Leading England to a semi-final finish in the World Cup (if only Kane had squared it to him against Croatia it could have been even more).
The kid from Brent became an icon, exuding that joy and winning mentality which he developed playing on the streets in Jamaica.
Sadly, Sterling’s achievements have come in spite of a constant barrage of media attacks.
Right at the beginning of his Liverpool days, the media had been onto him. From fabricating false narratives about the exact number of his children to labelling him as a trouble maker and publishing misleading information about his background. Sterling has had to face it all. One onslaught after another.
Raheem’s former teacher, Chris Beschi, has dealt with the negative kickbacks of Sterling’s public image in the mainstream media too. He has often found his words are twisted out of context to push a negative agenda when he speaks about his former pupil.
‘I once shared something with a journalist that I said to Raheem when he was at school that I said I wouldn’t want to make its way into an article because it frames it unfairly and they agreed. Then two days later, or whenever it went to press that quote had become the headline of a double page spread. So that was my first experience of how seemingly positive stories can be turned into a negative spin.’
Chris has become cautious about sharing his insights regarding Raheem. He’s rejected approaches by mainstream media publications since then, especially discussions about race.
It should go without saying, Sterling has never been a troublemaker. He’s never been an individual who has not taken football with the utmost professionalism and seriousness. Right from the very beginning, Raheem has been determined to make it. Hard-work has been the perpetual theme of his life. Every step of the way, Sterling has put in the extra hours and diligence that is needed to get to the level he is at today and that is echoed by his former coaches and managers right from his academy days to Liverpool and Manchester City.
“He was someone who was always going to do the work, he wasn’t just expecting it because of his incredible talent. This was a boy who looked after his body and his life to ensure that he could give himself every chance to do that.”
Is the way Brendan Rodgers describes Sterling.
Pep Guardiola has called him. ‘Extraordinary.’ ‘Incredible.’ ‘Special.’ His eyes glint with awe when he talks about him and Pep knows one or two things about football.
Sterling’s efforts and rise to the top should be celebrated and he should be a figure to aspire towards. He is a kid who had a dream and who made it become a reality.
But that doesn’t sell papers of course. Prying into every minor detail of Raheem’s life and embellishing them into unfounded and unjustified criticism unfortunately does. Oh Sterling just bought a car? Look at him splashing the cash! What an irresponsible young man! He has a gun tattooed on his leg! Clearly he is a criminal and promoting gun violence, England need to sack him!
Think about the worst lie anyone told about you. And then think about having to live with one hundred even worse lies over and over again. Having to deny them. Over and over again. And the whole time there is a camera on you and the whole world is watching. And you just have to watch them taunt you. No one believes your truth. The lie has taken hold. It happens over and over again. For almost an entire decade. Over and over again. That’s exhausting.
Especially when they rarely write stuff about the things Michael Owen buys. Or the earrings Wayne Rooney wears. Or what tattoos Phil Foden has. But Jadon Sancho often gets similar headlines. Notice a pattern?
The media narratives about Raheem having eight kids and splashing the cash, are prime examples of prejudiced ideas about race. They stem from colonialist thinking and are a dire indictment of the toxic ideals which still permeate within some the biggest media institution in the UK.
Sterling has always risen above the hate. He has often stood up to his teammates too and defended them in the public realm when they have been faced with similar unfounded criticism. Whether its calling out his racist abusers or standing up for his teammates’ negative portrayal in the media, Sterling has brought the conversation about race to the forefront of public consciousness.
For that he has transcended his status. He has become more than just a mere footballer. He is a figure who has stood up to hate, not only directed towards him but upon others too. He is an icon. With such a huge social media platform he is a trailblazer in every sense of the word and Chris Beschi believes Sterling’s background having come from Brent has played a major role in Raheem’s metamorphosis.
‘Brent is a place that is quite progressive when it comes to ideals and practises about race. In some sense it is unsurprising that Raheem is someone who is vocal about that and confident to be vocal about it.’
In an ideal world such onslaughts and pressures should never have heaped on Raheem’s shoulders.
At the essence of Raheem Sterling is a kid from Brent, who like many others dreamed to win trophies and play in football cathedrals around the world. At heart, he is just like any other football fan, with the same burning passion and desire for the game from when he was a kid. He is someone who loves the game and who enjoys playing it and he’s rather good at it too. He has the ability to evoke emotions on the pitch. Whether it’s for England, Manchester City or Liverpool, he’s brought all of us joy or sorrow and that’s what brands a special footballer.
Someone like him deserves to be celebrated for exactly what he is.
A kid who dreamed and made his dreams come true.