Raheem Sterling was 10 years old and a student at Vernon House, a school for children with behavioural difficulties, when his teacher made a stark observation.
"If you carry on the way you're going, by the time you're 17 you'll either be playing for England or you'll be in prison," Chris Beschi told BBC Sport he recalled saying to Sterling.
Beschi was remarkably prescient. Seven years after he made that comment, Sterling became the fifth-youngest player to represent England. He was 17 years and 341 days old when he featured for the Three Lions against Sweden in November 2012. It was some trajectory for a teenager who had occupied the basement of the English school system.
Less than four years on from his England debut, the 21-year-old Sterling is his nation's most expensive footballer. On Sunday, he will attempt to win the Capital One Cup for the club who paid £49 million for him, Manchester City, against the club he believed could not satisfy his ambition, Liverpool. The final will take place at Wembley, less than a mile from his old school.
Beschi remembered Sterling's arrival at Vernon House like Alka-Seltzer being dropped into the school's waters. This wasn’t an unpleasant or deliberately disruptive pupil, but he could not keep still for a second. This inability to remain stationary presented a challenge for all who came into contact with him.
"He was a tiny little ball of energy, and sometimes that would tip over into anger and he would get aggressive with other kids," Beschi said.
Given where he came from, it was hardly surprising the young Sterling found it a challenge to adhere to British notions of educational conformity. But football always came naturally to the small boy with the mop of tumbling dreadlocks.
"From the first day he joined the school, it became evident that he had a talent for football that was beyond his years. Way beyond his years," Beschi added.
Sterling was born in Maverley, a tough and uncompromising district of Kingston, Jamaica. He was the unplanned product of a brief Romeo and Juliet-esque liaison that spanned the warring badlands of the capital. His father came from Waterhouse, reckoned enemy territory in Maverley.
There was no mention of his father on the young boy’s birth certificate. Sterling’s mother, Nadine Clarke, gave her son the surname of the man who fathered his elder sister, Lakima, instead. Sterling never had any contact with his dad, who was shot dead in a gang murder when his son was just nine years old.
Out of financial necessity, Clarke moved to London to work as a nurse when Raheem was three, leaving him in Jamaica in the care of his grandmother. On the streets of Maverley, Sterling played football all day long, kicking an empty juice carton or a tin can around; the family could not afford a football.
Two years later, Clarke was sufficiently established in her career to send for the children and found a flat for the family in the St. Raphael's estate in Stonebridge, a tired wedge of unprepossessing social housing sandwiched between Wembley Stadium and the North Circular Road.
Sterling's mother worked endless shifts to gift her children the chances they would never have had in her homeland. It was a selfless act of sacrifice Sterling acknowledges in one of his many tattoos, an inking on his right arm that reads: "Thank you mama for the nine months you carried me, through all the pain and suffering."
Stonebridge was a challenging environment. A grimy urban sprawl, pockmarked with decay and decline, this was somewhere with a privilege deficit, a place where nothing comes easy, a place where it is best to keep moving.
Sterling quickly assimilated into the estate’s rhythms by joining the games of football striking up around the place. Everyone soon knew this was a boy who could play.
Sterling's sublime natural skill, honed by hours of unforced practice, at first went unnoticed by the football establishment. In an era when boys as young as five are targeted by scouts to fill Premier League academies, no one seemed to notice the young lad from Jamaica rampaging around the streets of Stonebridge.
Sterling passed under the scouting radar. And his mum simply didn’t have the time to take him to a junior club that might point him in the direction of recognition.
When Sterling was 11, however, he wandered along to a summer-holiday program organised in Stonebridge by Kicks, a Premier League-sponsored operation that provides expert coaching for youngsters in deprived areas. Anything for a game.
It was run by staff from Queens Park Rangers, and the coach in charge of the daily sessions was immediately impressed, recommending the speedy young winger be given a trial at the club.
"I’d be a liar if I said the moment I clapped eyes on him I knew he’d become a star," former QPR academy chief Steve Gallen admitted to B/R. "For a start, he was very, very small. And because the club had just come out of administration, there wasn’t much money available.
"We had to amalgamate the age groups. It meant he started playing in the year above. And that just accentuated the fact he was so small."
It quickly became apparent the smiling young recruit, for all he lacked in stature, had one significant advantage. "He was a street footballer," Gallen said. "And he lived in Stonebridge, so these were mean streets. They didn’t mess about there; it was tough.
"It helped develop his mentality. All through the ranks people tried to smash him. He was so small the bullies thought they could intimidate him. They couldn’t get close. He’d ride tackles. He’d see the fouls coming. And when they did hit him, it never bothered him for an instant. He’d dust himself down and get on with it. What you noticed from the start with him is he’s got no fear at all."
To this day, nothing fazes Sterling—nothing puts him off his stride. He appears oblivious to abuse from the crowd, doesn’t let attempted fouls divert him and shows no nerves on big occasions. When he gave away a controversial penalty in a crucial fixture against Tottenham Hotspur in February, he simply shrugged and got on with it.
Nothing he encounters these days is as challenging as what he faced in Stonebridge on a regular basis.
"He has a street mentality," Gallen said. "And there were downsides to that. He could be ill-disciplined. Not violent or aggressive, but he could get the hump. If his team were losing, he’d walk off the pitch. If someone didn’t pass to him, he’d walk to the sides and refuse to play. At school he had frustration issues. For him, it was all about winning. Literally nothing else mattered."
Richard Amofa played alongside the young Sterling in QPR's youth team. These days a sports journalist, Amofa is two years older but was struck as much by the younger boy’s ferocious competitiveness as he was by his skill.
"In youth football, it’s all about the big lad," Amofa said. "And he was tiny. I mean really, really small. But he always backed himself, always wanted the ball, always played with a smile on his face. We played in a pretty rigid way at QPR—the right-back played it down the channels to the wide midfielder, that sort of thing. And here, suddenly, was this tiny kid just doing his own thing, tearing all over the pitch, taking people on. I thought it was brilliant to watch."
Brilliant to watch it may have been, but for those in charge on the touchline, it was an approach that represented a defiance of assumed orthodoxy.
"It takes patience from the coach," Gallen said of the process of trying to turn a maverick youngster into a team player. "He’d listen. But it depended who was telling him. I discovered with Raheem you have to earn his trust. If you hammer him, he doesn’t listen. Yes, you could tell him off, but it would only really make a difference to his attitude if he trusted the person telling him off."
Sterling put it like this when being interviewed ahead of England’s friendly with Spain in November 2015, via the Telegraph: "I’m really stubborn. Everything goes through one ear and out the other—my mum says that as well. ... That’s always been my mentality."
Gallen’s patience was richly rewarded. Promoted rapidly through the ranks, the 14-year-old Sterling established himself as a star of QPR’s under-18 side.
"I’d see players on the opposition take one look at him and think, 'We’ll kick this one off the park,'" Gallen noted. "Lads would try to smash him because he was skinning them. But he was scoring a goal a game. It was absolutely counter to those who normally excel in youth games. It tends to be the big lads—you know, like Emile Heskey, a 6’2” grown man at 13—who dominate. He was doing it when he was tiny."
Word soon got around. "Everyone used to come and watch him. [Manchester] United, City, Chelsea, Arsenal—the touchline was buzzing with scouts. It got ridiculous. I used to have to drive him home myself after games because I feared if I didn’t, they’d follow him and tap him up."
One of those who watched him was Mark Anderson, who was Liverpool’s London-based youth scout. He first saw Sterling play in an under-18 fixture against Crystal Palace when he was 14. "I couldn’t believe my eyes," he said. "There were some raw edges, but he was the best thing I’d ever seen. I flagged him up immediately and watched him countless times. He produced something special in every game, showed me everything."
What struck everyone was how unaffected Sterling was by the gathering attention. Nothing altered his carefree demeanour.
"He had a quiet ambition about him," Amofa said. "But he was never one to boast. We all knew that loads of clubs were interested in him. You could see the scouts at all the games, and they weren’t there to watch me. But he was never someone who’d go on about it in the dressing room.
"It was never, 'Ah, Liverpool are after me.' He just enjoyed playing football with whomever he was playing."
Amofa said Sterling was humble, warm and generous with his contemporaries. He was the only under-18 player who would routinely stand and watch the under-14s—to see his mates play and cheer them on. "That generosity, that interest in others is not something you often see."
But if Sterling was not overtly ambitious, others were on his behalf. Gallen, for instance, had plans for the young winger.
"I told him he could beat Frank Sibley’s record and become the youngest player to make a first-team debut at QPR [Sibley was 15 when he first played for the club in 1963]. I was sure he’d do it. And for a coach, I’ll admit, that is what you want.
"I’m a QPR fan. How much of a buzz would I have got from seeing someone I taught taking the world by storm in a QPR shirt?"
The potential of vicarious association with the young winger loomed large. By now, Sterling had signed up with an agent. Aidy Ward had been a promising midfielder himself in his youth, on Tottenham’s books, before his chances were curtailed by a serious knee injury.
Consequently, Ward appreciated that speed was of the essence in developing a football career. Noting the presence of scouts at every game his young client played, Ward made contacts and put out the word the lad might be amenable to a move to more lucrative surroundings. Never mind loyalty to those who first nurtured his talent; loyalty doesn’t pay the bills.
"The agent was trying to drive a wedge between him and QPR," Gallen said. "I had a great relationship with his mum, but the agent worked in her ear too. Once he was in there, a club like QPR had no chance of keeping hold of him. Not when the big clubs came calling."
Before Sterling had the chance to break Sibley’s longstanding QPR record, Ward’s work bore fruit and Sterling signed for Liverpool in February 2010. He cost an initial £600,000, with a further £5 million to follow. So significant was the signing that Rafael Benitez, then Liverpool's manager, showed him around the club’s Melwood training ground.
Gallen was distraught; he knew what his club had lost: "When he signed for Liverpool, I was really bitter. God, I was furious. I so wanted him to play for QPR. But the truth is, looking back, I’m not so sure he’d have been the player he is now if he’d stayed.
"There was so much disruption at QPR, so many management changes. You can imagine what would have happened. One manager would have got him training in the first team, then the new one would have come in and seen how small he was and not fancied him [and] sent him out on loan.
"At Liverpool he got real security in his development. I hated it at the time, but going to Liverpool was the best thing that happened to him."
Gallen also acknowledged Sterling's move was the right thing for his personal development.
"It got him out of London," Gallen added. "Not that he was being distracted—he was incredibly focused. But there were some very jealous people around where he grew up, making life hard for him. The sniping, the aggression—he didn’t need it. He got away from all that going to Liverpool."
A month before his 15th birthday, Sterling was billeted with house parents and installed in the fifth form at Rainhill School in St Helens. Not that he paid much attention in the classroom—his entire focus was on football. Early on in his time playing for a Liverpool age-group side, the watching coaches got a sense of what they had signed.
It was September 2010, in an under-18s local derby, played at Everton’s Finch Farm training complex. One of the Everton defenders welcomed the youngster to Merseyside with a bone-crunching reducer of a tackle.
Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s then-ambassador, and Frank McParland, the academy director who had pressed for the new boy’s transfer, held their breath in alarmed expectation of what might follow. They had seen it before: the shock, the anger, followed by the fear.
But this time the boy jumped straight to his feet, smiled at his assailant and took the cleanest, most clinical form of retribution by immediately helping to set up a goal. He wasn’t remotely disturbed; he had experienced far worse in Stonebridge. It was a first insistence that it is never wise to underestimate Raheem Sterling.
"I was very excited by the level of him technically and his incredible pace; you saw a lot of star quality in him," McParland said. "I think he had to learn the Spanish style of play [Benitez imposed on the club], because even though he's an individual player, if he was going to play at the highest level, he needed to know other aspects of the game."
It was a steep learning curve for a player who used to take offence if his team-mates didn’t pass to him, the nonconformist who grated against the rigidity of systems. But at Liverpool, Sterling applied himself to such an extent that in 2011, a year after arriving at the club, he went out and scored five goals in a 9-0 win for the academy side over Southend United.
Such performances became commonplace. Sterling was settling down in his new environment. So much so that not long after his 17th birthday, he became a father. His daughter, Melody, was born after a brief relationship with a local girl named Melissa Clarke.
Sterling's private life appeared to have no detrimental bearing on his football. On March 24, 2012, remembering what he had seen on that Finch Farm touchline, Dalglish, now Liverpool manager, handed him a first-team appearance. Sterling made his senior Liverpool debut as a substitute in a Premier League match against Wigan Athletic. He was 17 years and 107 days old, the second-youngest first-teamer in the club’s history, behind Jack Robinson.
After two more appearances off the bench, Sterling was part of the first-team squad for the club's tour of the U.S. that summer. In charge was Dalglish’s replacement, Brendan Rodgers, and the pair had an immediate confrontation.
During a training session, Rodgers called everyone together and berated the attitude of the younger players.
"You need to improve," he said, as documented in fly-on-the-wall series Being: Liverpool. One of the youngsters could be heard mumbling something in response. It was Sterling. Rodgers turned on him, angry at the defiance. "You say 'steady' to me again, and you’ll be in the first plane back."
Sterling—not one to enjoy the imposition of authority—answered back: "I didn’t say 'steady.'"
Rodgers, with a steely gaze, pointed his finger and replied: "Sterling, you know what you said."
Sterling was fuming at being publicly dressed down, particularly as the admonition appeared to be stage-managed for the cameras to buff up the new man’s status.
When training finished, he was on the phone to Ward expressing his annoyance. Never mind a fellow player not passing to him, here was his manager publicly bawling at him for little more than a mumbled comment and a suck on the teeth.
Ward counselled caution. The best course of action, he said, was to apologise, keep his head down and work hard. So Sterling dropped his manager a note to say sorry. It was sage advice; Rodgers was so impressed by the lad’s contrition that by the time the new season started, he promoted him.
On August 23, 2012, Sterling made his first start in a Liverpool shirt in a 1-0 away win at Hearts in the UEFA Europa League. A few days later, he started in the Premier League against, of all teams, Manchester City. Two months after that, he became the second-youngest player in Liverpool history, after Michael Owen, to score a first-team goal when he got the winner against Reading.
The terrace songsmiths marked his arrival with an apposite song: "Raheem Sterling No. 1. If you’re not quick, he’s away and gone. Six hundred grand, oh, what a fee. When he’s skipping past Vincent Kompany."
That November, Sterling's rocket-fuelled upward momentum was confirmed when he made his full England debut in the aforementioned friendly against Sweden, largely remembered for an audacious goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
That he chose to play for the country where he was educated in the game rather than the one of his birth speaks volumes about Sterling’s ambition. He has huge affection for Jamaica and owns a large property on the island, where he enjoys reconnecting with his grandmother, aunts and cousins. But Sterling accepted the invitation from Roy Hodgson to play at a higher level—against more serious opposition. His quiet ambition was best served that way.
The rewards of Sterling's sudden elevation were not solely those of enhanced playing satisfaction. When he turned 18 in December 2012, he signed a contract extension at Anfield. He spoke of his delight at being able to pledge his future to a club of Liverpool’s stature.
There was another, rather satisfying aspect to his new deal: The £35,000 a week the contract delivered was money way beyond the most fanciful of expectations. At 18, the lad born into abject poverty, who had been educationally written off at 10, was a millionaire.
There is nothing quite like the sight of a young, working-class man earning large sums of money to stir the prejudices of the privileged older generation. And a couple of incidents involving pictures of him sucking from a balloon full of nitrous oxide, also known as hippy crack, posted on social media and an ultimately withdrawn accusation that he had assaulted a girl in the passenger seat of his swanky car were quickly worked up into an image of a young man intoxicated with wealth and prestige.
Wild rumours circulated that he had fathered three children by three different mothers. The gathering sense was of someone who had had it all way too early and was losing his head in the excess of it all.
Sterling stayed calm. He didn’t respond to the gathering criticism. He had dealt with far worse in Stonebridge.
The following season, the idea he had taken his eye off the ball was emphatically refuted. Forming a fearsome forward trio with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, Sterling proved the truth in the old football adage: "If you are good enough, you are old enough." With Sturridge full of guile, Sterling full of pace and Suarez at his sniping, rampaging and devastating best, Liverpool were magnificent.
Suarez in particular helped raise Sterling’s game. Ferocious in his competitiveness, every training session was conducted with an intensity that refused to allow any lapse in concentration.
On the pitch, Suarez would lambaste his young colleague for every error, unleashing a torrent of complaint if the proper pass had not been delivered or if the youngster had tried to go alone when colleagues were better placed to score. When the abuse was spat in his direction, Sterling merely shrugged his shoulders and got on with it, mentally filing every tongue-lashing as useful experience.
He didn’t appear to mind being shouted at if the person doing the shouting was as good as Suarez. With a force of nature as unstoppable as the Uruguayan leading the line, Sterling was within a couple of points of earning a championship medal at the age of just 19.
"I think his playing style suits playing with better players," Amofa opined. "At Liverpool he got that, compared to QPR. You could see he learned so much from playing with Suarez. You could see he became more disciplined. Watch him now—he’s a real team player.
"Watch him for City, and they’ll play him on the left wing, which isn’t his most natural position; he’s right-footed. But they need him to do a job, and he’ll do it happily. When he was younger, it was all about scoring as often as possible. That was all he was interested in. After being at Liverpool with Suarez, it became about the team."
There would be no Premier League winner’s medal with Liverpool, but 2014 brought Sterling personal acclaim. He was awarded the Golden Boy prize as the best under-21 player in Europe.
"It's down to hard work," he said, per Liverpool's website. "I'm really happy that people are recognising that I'm trying to work hard and do my best for this football club. I'm really grateful for this award."
That summer, Sterling was included in England’s FIFA World Cup squad. It was not the most rewarding of expeditions. First he was sent off in a warm-up game against Ecuador. Then in the group match against Uruguay, he was obliged to watch his colleague, Suarez, tear England apart with a two-goal flourish.
The gap between Sterling and a properly established world-class talent was cruelly exposed when he drifted through the encounter, unable to establish any control and becoming increasingly peripheral before being substituted. And when Sterling returned to Liverpool for the following season, he found his mentor had gone, sold to Barcelona.
Sturridge, too, was largely absent through a gathering litany of injuries. Worse, Liverpool had made little apparent effort to replace their lost talisman effectively. Rickie Lambert, signed from Southampton, is a nice bloke, but he is no Suarez on the pitch.
Sterling’s sense his ambition was being thwarted grew as the season advanced. Liverpool were nothing like the force they had been. He was too often expected to carry less elevated team-mates. Instead of Suarez, he had to pass to Adam Lallana. And Rodgers, increasingly intoxicated with his own renown, made some eccentric decisions, playing him at wing-back when everyone knew he was best placed up front.
In December 2014, Liverpool offered Sterling a new contract. Disturbed by the news Steven Gerrard was also set to leave the club and uncomfortable with the lack of reassurance about future team-building, he did not sign it. Rodgers quickly let the press know his young charge had turned down a deal worth an "incredible" amount of money.
And so the impasse continued until it became a standoff. With Ward working stealthily in the background, Sterling refused to sign.
For the legion of Liverpool old boys working in the media, their approach was nothing less than sacrilege. None of these ex-pros had ever been offered anything close to £100,000 a week. Nor had they the brass neck to turn it down.
Per the Mirror, John Barnes told reporters Sterling "has not achieved anything." Jamie Carragher spoke out on Sky Sports (via the Liverpool Echo), declaring that "for a 20-year-old to be taking on Liverpool Football Club over a contract angers me to the pit of my stomach."
According to the Liverpool Echo, John Aldridge took it one step further and got personal with Ward. "I bet he's never kicked a ball in his life," the former Reds striker said, apparently unaware of Ward’s days as a youth-team player at Spurs. He continued:
But [he] thinks he knows all there is to know about the game. If he knew about the game, he'd know about respect. ... [W]hat the agent has done to Sterling has been absolutely woeful. He hasn't just tarnished his own reputation; he's tarnished the reputation of Raheem Sterling.
There was no doubt about that. As the dispute festered and gathered in rancour, in newspaper columns and Internet chat forums, "Sterling" became a byword for feckless venality.
"Greed" became his middle name. And when Sterling did an unsanctioned interview with the BBC to give his side of the story, it did little to subdue the gathering storm of opprobrium. "It's never been about money," he insisted. "I talk about winning trophies throughout my career. That's all I talk about."
No one was listening. Within hours of the interview's airing, seven Twitter parody accounts had sprung up, all called things like Greedy Sterling. The widespread assumption was he was the epitome of the thoughtless, loyalty-free modern footballer.
Rodgers blamed Ward for the contractual impasse. "If [Sterling] is asked to do that by other parties, then that's what he'll do," he said, per the Telegraph.
Ward was not about to back down. He gave an interview to the London Evening Standard that could hardly be described as emollient.
"I don’t care about the PR of the club and the club situation," Ward said. "He is definitely not signing. He’s not signing for 700, 800, 900 thousand a week." He finished by calling indomitable Liverpool hero Carragher "a knob."
The breach with the Liverpool supporters had become a chasm. As Sterling’s form stuttered beneath the swell of criticism, he was singled out for blame as the side stumbled to a 6-1 defeat at Stoke City in May 2015, red-faced fans rubbing their fingers together in his direction in an angry mime of money-grabbing.
When he picked up the Young Player of the Year award at the club’s end-of-season presentation, he was booed.
"I was really shocked when I heard all that stuff around his move from Liverpool," said Amofa, his old QPR youth team-mate. "Raheem is a nice guy. He has time for everyone. He’s always cheerful. He’s not a guy to cause problems. He always had a great attitude in training, working to improve. I was sad about the reputation he got then. Because that’s not him. Maybe it was the agent."
Sterling could not stay at Liverpool. With the contract still unsigned, he returned to training late after the summer break, then absented himself from the pre-season tour.
Manchester City, meanwhile, saw two bids to sign him turned down. Eventually, on July 12, 2015, a deal was accepted between the two clubs. At an initial £44 million, with a further £5 million dependent on appearances, he became the most expensive English player in history.
It seemed an extravagant amount for a player who had delivered but one unequivocally excellent season. But Paul Lake, the former City midfielder who worked as an ambassador at the club, said it fits the plan.
"City think five years ahead," Lake said. "And while Raheem may not have been the finished article, they were looking to develop the next go-to match-winner, the next [Sergio] Aguero or Yaya [Toure]."
Part of that planning, Lake suggested, involved the identity of the next manager:
"It wouldn’t surprise me given the number of individuals who work at the club who are acutely aware of the kind of player Pep Guardiola wants in his team that they identified Raheem because they knew the manager was coming. ... The thought of what Guardiola could do to make Raheem better is mouth-watering."
Sterling has worked hard at shutting out the negativity at City. He has immersed himself in family life and stayed away from reports in the media. And he's been focused on working hard at the task at hand—making good on his potential and winning some trophies.
Sterling has embraced life at City with enthusiasm. According to MailOnline, he's moved into a six-bedroom house with his girlfriend, Paige Lee Hansel, nearby to former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in Wilmslow, Cheshire. With its 30-foot swimming pool, cinema room and garage containing his four cars (three pricey sports cars and the Smart car in which he first turned up to training), the fruits of his new contract are on show for all to see.
At the new Etihad Campus training complex, Sterling is working with players who inspire him to be better. The respect is mutual.
"He is going to make history," David Silva said in an interview with Paul Wilson of the Guardian in December. "He's technically very gifted, and he's got a lot more to come."
Sterling is not yet the go-to match-winner Lake suggested he will be, but the booing that soundtracked his early City matches soon subsided. When he scored a hat-trick against Bournemouth in October, opposition fans began to recognise the logic of his new place of work. Lake was particularly impressed by his attitude, the one first forged on the streets of Stonebridge.
"His responses to being clattered are impeccable," he said. "He’s in the zone; he doesn’t allow external pressures to impact on him. He’s able to manage the moment."
Not that everything has always gone smoothly—not least when City played Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in November 2015. Jurgen Klopp's men eviscerated City, 4-1. And how the visiting fans relished their chance to gloat. At the final whistle the chant echoed 'round the stadium: "Sterling, what’s the score? Sterling, Sterling, what’s the score?"
The man himself barely seemed to notice. He's made of tougher stuff than to be affected by terrace chants. The focus remains firmly on the prize-gathering ahead.
Sterling's assault on renown starts with the Capital One Cup final on Sunday before City return to the business of trying to win the Premier League and the Champions League.
Sterling then moves onto Euro 2016 with England, with whom he has the opportunity to make his mark as one of the best young players in the world. And then next season, he will begin work with the smartest of all modern managers, Pep Guardiola.
David Silva was right: For Raheem Sterling, history awaits.
Quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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