Euro 2020 qualifiers: Raheem Sterling as indispensable for England as for Manchester City
Long criticised he is not good enough to play at international level, hat-trick against Czech Republic on Friday night proves winger has evolved into match-winner, reposing faith in his managers who believed in his abilities
It was not the way some of his predecessors would have celebrated their first international hat-trick.
Raheem Sterling visited the education and social inclusion charity Football Beyond Borders on Friday night, donated his England shirt and addressed a group of young people.
“Just do what you believe in,” he said. “If someone tells you you’re not good enough, that’s their opinion.”
There was a time comparatively recently when too many thought Sterling was not good enough: not Pep Guardiola, Gareth Southgate or former managers such as Brendan Rodgers, but some in the wider world.
Perceptions of Sterling were coloured. It has taken time and goals to change them. It is easier to acquire a bad reputation than a good one and if Sterling was miscast as an emblem of what is wrong with modern football, the evidence is mounting that he represents much of what is right.
His treble in the 5-0 demolition of Czech Republic was dedicated to Damary Dawkins, a 13-year-old who died of leukaemia last Sunday. His response to adversity felt typical: 15 months ago, he was the subject of a racially- motivated assault before Manchester City faced Tottenham Hotspur.
He still scored twice that day. They are two of the 47 goals he has scored for club and country since the start of last season. Before then, he had 46 in his whole career.
It is a transformation. Talent has been converted into productivity.
In those 19 months, Sterling has scored 33 Premier League goals and assisted a further 20. Only Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero have been involved in more. And yet England represented the final frontier.
Sterling completed the World Cup without scoring. He was booed by England fans after Euro 2016; he was given the lowest average rating by voters in the BBC’s player ratings in the World Cup.
He seemed a favourite scapegoat. The standing ovation he was granted on Friday showed had come “full circle", in Southgate’s words.
The negative appraisals never came from him. Sterling’s tasks in Russia involved selfless running in an unfamiliar role, dragging defences deeper to open up space for others. He was often found ahead of Kane. That was in a 3-5-2 formation.
A subsequent switch to 4-3-3 has benefited Sterling. His opening goal against the Czechs was a City-style goal, scored in their shape. Each of the front three was involved and Kane said: “In 4-3-3, the wingers go wide and when I drop deep, they come in.”
For Guardiola, Sterling has been the winger who gets strikers’ finishes.
“Getting in the six-yard box,” Kane told Sky Sports. “That’s where most of the goals are being scored.”
Sterling’s efforts on Friday made him the first winger to score a hat-trick for England since Theo Walcott against Croatia in 2008; unlike another teenage prodigy, Sterling’s potential is being realised.
And yet the breakthrough night was his two-goal display against Spain in Seville. After 26 internationals without a goal, it brought a run of five in three.
A different kind of recognition has followed. Southgate has given Sterling a place in the leadership group within the squad. “He’s a role model for younger players coming in,” he said.
Sterling encouraged Jadon Sancho when the teenager was first called up when, in the midst of his long goal drought, he could have been forgiven for worrying about a threat to his place.
If the debutant Callum Hudson-Odoi became a still younger winger to throw into the mix and Sancho sparkled on Friday, Sterling is now as indispensable for England as for City. “He is so humble,” Kane said.
It reflected the way it feels a triumph of character.
Updated: March 23, 2019 03:03 PM