x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The gifted Raheem Sterling in safe hands of Brendan Rodgers

By withholding a new contract offer for the 17 year old, the Liverpool manager wants to keep his player grounded and reward him with a contract.

It is not common for a 17 year old to play for a club such as Liverpool in a match, which Raheem Sterling is.
It is not common for a 17 year old to play for a club such as Liverpool in a match, which Raheem Sterling is.

Imagine playing in a league game between England's two biggest clubs at the age of 17. That is what Liverpool's Raheem Sterling is likely to do on Sunday when Manchester United go to Anfield.

Young maybe, but you're fearless at that age and fazed by nothing. Sterling has done extremely well in a struggling side this season and deserves his place in the starting line-up. If he shines then it's a bonus; if he doesn't then he will have plenty more games to impress.

Seventeen is very, very young, though. I played my first big game - a Charity Shield - when I was 21 and that was considered young then. My son is 17 and at Manchester City. He may have been listed in the City squad in Madrid on Tuesday, but I do not expect him to be in City's first team at 19 or even 21. To break into a Premier League side at 17, as Sterling has done, is incredible.

It was my son who first told me about "the kid at QPR" a few years ago, before he joined Liverpool. I was particularly interested in him because he was born in Jamaica, the country of my parents, before he moved to London at age five.

I watched Sterling play for England in a junior World Cup and saw his pace and trickery first-hand. The difference between the player I first saw and the one we see now is a much improved final ball.

Once he becomes stronger and more experienced, Sterling's trickery and decision making will improve further. He also needs to keep his feet on the ground, but it looks like Sterling is in good hands with Brendan Rodgers as his coach.

Kids of that age are full of themselves. That confidence is only increased if they are professional footballers at a top-flight club on good money. Many of them need bringing down a peg and a dose of reality. Too many of them think they've already made it because they have beautiful girls around them and can afford a flash car, when the reality is that 80 per cent of them won't make five appearances at a Premier League club.

I went into Man City last season as my son had an injury. One of his teammates said in a sarcastic tone: "Ooh, look, daddy's here." Young players should be asking questions and soaking information in from older players who have done something in the game, not trying to be clever.

It will be interesting to see if the player is so cocksure in three years when he's had a few rejections or injuries. That's the reality for most in football, not continued success.

Young players think they know it all, but they need good people around, people who will be tough and make the right decisions for them. They need an agent who looks at the bigger picture and not just the next contract and a manager who can dispense tough love.

Seeing Rodgers withhold a new contract offer for Sterling seemed like good management to me. He wants to keep his player grounded and reward him with a contract - but only if he continues to improve. That's absolutely right. I've seen too many young players stop performing because they think they've made it, stop producing the goods which won them the contract in the first place, stop listening to senior professionals. More the fool, them. They always regret it, too. And I've seen players like Ryan Giggs who never stop listening and never stop learning. He's not had a bad career.

I also saw a preview of a behind-the-scenes television programme on Liverpool where Sterling told Rodgers to go "steady" while addressing the younger end about their attitude on the pre-season tour of the US.

Rogers replied: "You say 'steady' to me again when I say something to you, you'll be on the first plane back."

Sterling protested, then Rodgers said: "You know what I said, I know what you said. You'll be on the first plane back."

Brilliant management from a manager taking full control of his young star in front of all the other players.

How and where Sterling plays tomorrow intrigues me. He's likely to be up against the experienced Patrice Evra or Rafael da Silva. The Brazilian is only 22 himself, but he has already played nearly 100 games for United and he was excellent at Anfield in the cup game last season. United's new full-back, Alexander Buttner, may start, but Sir Alex Ferguson conceded last week that he was still very raw and is unlikely to start such a raw player at Liverpool away, especially as United's recent record there is so poor.

People may talk about what will happen off the field, but it's what happens on it which should be the main focus and I hope that once the whistle goes, the fans get engrossed in a brilliant match where United finally do themselves justice.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten

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