There is no pattern to the money clubs hand over for players. Each transfer comes with its own unique set of circumstances. Yet the tendency to compare players and judge them on their price remains.
With big fees come big expectations.
Raheem Sterling has suffered because of it since his move to Manchester City in the summer. The winger was a young, English talent Liverpool didn’t want to sell, and he was under contract for a significant period. The Merseysiders held all the cards, and City, knowing his potential was huge, paid the premium—a long-term investment on a player nowhere near his prime.
City’s persistence saw them push through a £44 million transfer, making Sterling the most expensive British footballer in history. These were headline-grabbing facts that coloured people’s opinions. How can a 20-year-old, as he was when he moved, who is yet to win a major trophy, be worthy of such a high price?
To make things even more difficult, he was painted in the press as a money-grabber, the kind who puts financial interest before their career. A series of high-profile ex-Liverpool stars weighed in to castigate Sterling for the move. He wasn’t seen to be moving to develop his game and play UEFA Champions League football in a side playing for trophies; he was a mercenary turning his back on the side that had nurtured him since the age of 15, indicative of everything wrong in modern football.
It’s made things particularly difficult for him. The media reaction to the move has had an effect on the masses. Sterling is booed mercilessly up and down the country, even at clubs who have no emotional involvement whatsoever. It's been very strange to observe such a bitterness towards a young player who has done what all of us have done: made a move to further themselves and their career.
It even appears to have affected referees. Sterling can’t get a decision, no matter how clear the foul is to any right-minded observer. See the last-gasp denial of a penalty in the recent league game with Everton for the clearest piece of evidence to date.
But the thing about Sterling is he is absolutely focused on becoming the best he can be. Nothing fazes him.
In his brilliant piece for Bleacher Report this week, Jim White charts his rise, from a young child whose father was absent and then murdered when Sterling was just nine, to his time as a youth player at Queens Park Rangers, a period that saw him targeted by bigger, stronger kids on the field, through to the present day.
It's a story of a young person with the kind of talent and desire to be the best only a few possess.
"I’d be a liar if I said the moment I clapped eyes on him I knew he'd become a star," said former QPR academy chief Steve Gallen. "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."
Richard Amofa, who played alongside the young Sterling in QPR's youth team, said he was different. "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."
This is a player used to taking knocks, and yet here he is, at 21, starring for one of Europe’s biggest and most ambitious sides, with four years’ worth of international experience under his belt. You don’t achieve what he has achieved without being a very special person.
His first season at the Etihad, as many expected, has been somewhat inconsistent. Moving from a club where you are a guaranteed starter and one of the top three players in the squad, in a side that has struggled for silverware, to one where the squad is full of winners in an environment that demands success, is a difficult transition to make.
But Sterling has shown what he can do. Yes, there have been occasions where he has been on the periphery of matches, struggling to make his mark, but he also demonstrated his exceptional qualities on numerous occasions. He doesn't look out of place alongside the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho.
On Wednesday, in Kiev, he gave his most dynamic and accomplished display since the 3-1 win in Seville in November. It’s interesting his best performances have come on the biggest stage in the most difficult circumstances. Add in his two-goal display against Borussia Monchengladbach, which saw City top their Champions League group, and it becomes clear he revels under pressure.
In those games, he was brave and tenacious, willing to run at defenders and take them on. They were unable to cope with his direct, skilful approach.
For a player this young to have achieved what he has already is unbelievable. He became the fourth-youngest player to appear for England when, in November 2012, aged just 17 years and 341 days old, he featured against Sweden.
In 2013/14, the season Liverpool came the closest they have in a long time to winning the title, Sterling was outstanding, with only Luis Suarez more influential in their thrilling challenge. He was a teenager at the time playing with maturity beyond his years.
City didn’t buy Sterling to bring them success this season. He was a long-term investment. They want to see him still playing regularly for the club in five years’ time, and on the evidence we’ve seen, he is likely to go on and become an established star of European football.
Pace to burn, a hard worker, unselfish, great technical ability—he has so much to his game. No wonder Liverpool were desperate not to sell and City wouldn't take no for an answer.
His game remains in need of developing, and under Pep Guardiola next season, he'll receive the best input imaginable. Guardiola's track record in improving young players should make Sterling very excited indeed.
He is already justifying his fee. City have landed a rare talent.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard.