Manchester – Raheem Sterling strides into a sunlit room at Manchester City’s sprawling academy, shakes hands politely, then offers a killer quip. “Is that really 14 questions?” he says, peering at the paper on the table with its long list of possible inquiries before breaking into laughter.
Sterling maintains this open manner during a conversation that takes in his often crass treatment in the news pages of some publications as well as the death of his father in Maverley, a particularly dangerous area of Kingston, Jamaica, when Raheem was still a child.
The way Sterling discusses himself, his career and image reveals a 22-year‑old who is fast maturing. The response to the criticism he received at the turn of the year offers an illustration. In January one tabloid decided to highlight that Sterling – wait for it – ate a sausage roll from popular bakery, Greggs, and had the temerity to eat it in a “£500,000 limited edition Bentley”. Sterling laughed it off with an Instagram post that highlighted the story with the simple question: “What’s my life come 2?” along with three laughing emojis, while stating he was unaware Bentleys cost this much.
Discussing it now there is only bemusement. “I see it and think, ‘Why does that story have to be about me?’” he says. “If you’re doing something wrong – the times I’ve been caught doing balloons, whatever, yeah, no problem. I accept if you’re a silly boy you get dealt with.
“But there’s these times when you’ve been thinking about football, been at home, just trying to stay out of everyone’s way, and you’re still getting stuff. I see it as I can’t win.”
He has a point. Accepting responsibility for inhaling “balloons” (which are filled with nitrous oxide) when at Liverpool is rather far from eating a sausage roll or being reported in the same tabloid as having a muddy car, as also occurred.
Sterling’s explanation for why he can be unfairly hammered is charmingly self-deprecating. “I’ve got that face,” he says, and laughs. “You know when you see someone on TV and go, ‘I don’t like him?’ Some people have that face and I’ve got it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve just got face: he looks like a brat. The ‘I don’t like face’. That’s how I see it. And I’m not a brat. Sometimes I’m watching a movie and you see a character and go, ‘I don’t like him’ – that’s me.
“There’s not even any point stressing. When I actually saw those stories I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, are you winding me up?’ I could not believe what I was seeing. I thought, ‘Has it really come to this? Like really?’”
Pep Guardiola, his manager, is particularly supportive. During last summer’s European Championship the Catalan telephoned him after Sterling had dubbed himself “The Hated One” on Instagram following England’s opening game against Russia.
He says: “It is massive – every player wants to feel welcome and he did that from the first moment. It is a massive bonus and all I try to do is my best and hopefully I can keep doing better.”
One high-stakes match Sterling did shine in was England’s opening 2014 World Cup encounter with Italy in Manaus. To field Sterling at No10 Wayne Rooney was shunted wide by Roy Hodgson, the manager. Although England lost, Sterling took Italy’s best defenders apart in a scintillating man-of-the-match display. He was only 19 and says his late father drove him on.
Sterling smiles at the memory. “I remember the game like it was no time ago,” he says. “It was a massive game for me – I just thought to myself: ‘If only my dad was here.’ I wish my dad could have been there but he passed away. So to myself I said: ‘I need to play well for him because he’s never been at a football match. He’s never seen me on a football pitch.’ So I wanted to win that game and we never won in the end but it was an alright performance from me. I was just so determined to do well.
“Performing for my dad does drive me on. Especially in big games, massive games. Like the [FA Cup] semi-final against Arsenal coming up, that’ll be the next thing in my head about him. Whenever it comes to an important day like that he always runs through my head. You’re always thinking, ‘It’s a great atmosphere, great scenery, he never experienced this.’”
The Cup semi-final against Arsène Wenger’s side is on 23 April at Wembley. After Nadine, Sterling’s mother, moved the family from Jamaica to north London he grew up a corner kick away from the national stadium. Sterling has played there before in club competition – for Liverpool and City – as well as for England.
Yet he still talks of the “magic” of Wembley. “It’s amazing – that night before, then you wake up and it’s that day, crazy,” he says. “Coming off the motorway – you see Brent Cross right there, where I did my shopping, seeing places as we drive round, where my mum gets the car washed….”
Just as fond a destination is his native Jamaica, which he visits regularly. “When I go down there I’m in paradise,” Sterling says. “Beaches every day – just chilling, literally chilling. Time moves so slow. That’s why I have to go back: the beaches, the food, I love every moment of it.
“I actually feel emotional when I have to leave. Really emotional because … because the food is just fresh, you sit on the beach and it’s coming out from the sea – fresh, the fish is fresh. Oh please don’t – please don’t remind me!”
Before the Cup date with the Gunners, City traveled to the Emirates on Sunday where they tied 2-2 in the Premier League. While Guardiola’s men are fourth, four points behind Tottenham Hotspur in second place and five clear of fifth-place Manchester United, Arsenal are seven points poorer and languishing in sixth.
Sterling, who scored the winner in December’s reverse fixture against Arsenal, believes “the semi-final will be a special day. I’ve enjoyed playing against Arsenal from a young age.”
A night that was not too much fun was the 3-1 defeat at Monaco that knocked City out of the Champions League on away goals, after a 6-6 aggregate draw. Sterling offers an honest assessment. “We stopped playing, we weren’t playing our normal football,” he says. “No matter the scenario, what’s in front of us, what the next round is. We’ve got to keep playing our football because there’s not many teams that can stop us.
“That’s what we did – we stopped. We were a bit naive and were trying to be safe and stuff as we wanted to get through. We just needed to be ourselves. It’s the first year with the manager in the Champions League and it’s definitely something we’ll learn from.”
Sterling has never scored more than 11 goals in a club season. He is currently on nine and enters joke mode again to criticize himself for not having more. “Oh mate, there’s something wrong with me – there’s actually something wrong with me,” he says. “I should have so many more goals. It’s terrible. I should be on about 15-16 goals right now and that’s what I need to do to get to the player I want to be.
“Goals can help lift me to be one of the best two or three in the world, most definitely. You score the goal that wins the football match five, six, seven times a season: you are one of the best in the world. And that’s what I need to do. I need to keep being consistent. I know I’m joking and laughing here – but I take that very seriously. Next year I’m getting there, 100 percent. But this year I’ve got enough time to get a few more goals – it’s just one of those, you need to start scoring goals. I’m putting too much pressure on myself at times.”
Sterling is not 23 until December but his cocktail of talent and increasing maturity gives him every chance of reaching the peak of the sport.
City’s style under Guardiola is aiding that ambition. “I’m probably playing a bit more direct, once I get in the final third I make an action, use instinct,” he says. “Before I was a bit more slow, I tried to mix it up. Now I’m just going at it 100 percent. Before I was trying to be silky. It’s just the way we’re playing under the manager.”
Sterling constantly dreams of being one of the world’s finest footballers. “Oh every day – every day,” he says. “I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t. That’s my aim. I’m not here to be a number. I’m here to be one of the best, as simple as that. I just need to raise my game – I know exactly what I need to do to go where I want.”