After a week or so in which Raheem Sterling has been sent off for Manchester City for over-celebrating, booed off for England for even less, and purportedly close to being binned off by Pep Guardiola, it would only be human for at least part of him to be quietly relieved to be suspended for Liverpool's visit to the Etihad on Saturday.
Had he been available, he would have had to accept what was coming his way with the grim resignation one feels stopping at a service station for food. You're not doing it for the haute cuisine or ambiance; it's just a necessary evil to negotiate on a longer journey. He could only have enjoyed it the way one enjoys the feeling of satisfaction upon leaving the dentist. Only a sadist is ever happy in the chair.
England manager Gareth Southgate described Sterling as "ballsy" and "a player we have a lot of time for" on the back of his decision to replace him at half-time in last week's 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Malta, as reported by the BBC, before Marcus Rashford shone and scored a winner in his place against Slovakia.
Perhaps only a player whose career seemingly swings like a pendulum on a week-by-week basis could have started just one of Manchester City's matches so far this season, a game in which he was ridiculously sent off against Bournemouth after scoring an injury-time winner, and still be named the club's Player of the Month.
It's been quite the month. Towards the end of the summer transfer window, he was mooted as being a makeweight in City's pursuit of Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez, according to the Mirror. It's said whenever he hears a French accent at City's training ground, he jumps into a cupboard in the fear it may be Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger coming to get him.
While it is generally accepted that it was Arsenal who enquired after Sterling rather than City who offered him, what is less clear-cut is how integral City boss Guardiola feels the winger is to his plans. Key enough to keep, no question, but whether Sterling can nail down a regular starting spot amid world-class competition could be his biggest battle yet in a career already littered with them.
With Bernardo Silva looking like he could trap an egg thrown from the Empire State building without cracking it, surely it is only a matter of time before the Portuguese schemer cements his place in City's first XI. That will be one less spot to vie for.
Given Sergio Aguero looks likely to spend more time on the bench than is decent for a player of his calibre, Sterling will be aware he needs to recapture his Liverpool form from 2014/15 to make himself undroppable.
There's no doubt Sterling performed much better in his second season at City under Guardiola than he did his first under Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean's predilection for one- and two-touch football neutered Sterling's natural game to the extent he started just two of City's last 16 matches in that debut campaign. Asking Sterling to play two-touch is like asking Will Self to use only words with two syllables. Bol-locks.
Last season, like the rest of City's side, he flirted with the idea of looking like a world-beater without ever confirming as much. Guardiola kept telling him, and anyone who would listen, how he would be a great player if he could finish. Sterling readily agreed but frustrated his manager on occasion with his poor decision-making. But then who always makes the right call at 22? It's easy to forget he's still a kid having clocked up 200 Premier League and UEFA Champions League appearances already.
In fairness, he made enough right decisions across all competitions to be the only City player to reach double figures for both goals and assists.
Guardiola has hinted he could utilise Sterling more through the middle this season, in behind Gabriel Jesus or Aguero, with the Spaniard convinced he can improve on last term's career-equalling high of 11 goals.
"We played to attack the central defenders and Rash [Sterling] has this ability. If he would be a guy with a little more scent of the goal, he would be one of the most incredible players," he told reporters after the Bournemouth game (via ESPN).
"He scored two goals, and hopefully he will score more. But we encourage him, and we promote him and tell him to try and try and try to score a goal."
Teaching a player to have a scent for goal feels a tough ask, like asking someone to be funny. Not for the first time in his career, there is a feeling he could be overtaken. At the very least, he seems to be at a crossroads.
What's sad, but so typically English, is a pervading sense that, other than City supporters, a majority would be happy to see him fail.
Barely into his 20s, Sterling has had to roll with more punches than your average journeyman sparring partner. He's gone from being the darling of the country for his virtuoso performance against Italy at the 2014 World Cup—in the same year he became only the second English player to be a Golden Boy winner (awarded to Europe's most promising young player)—to summing up his involvement at Euro 2016 with an Instagram post tagged with #TheHatedOne. It's hard to think of a player demonised so emphatically in such a short space of time, with such glee, as Sterling.
It's a wonder those that hound him don't do so wearing spiffing red jackets and jodhpurs. Sound the horn; a kid eating a sausage roll in a Bentley has been spotted.
Sterling has regularly expressed regret at how his departure from Liverpool in the summer of 2015 played out. It's arguably still chasing him around now. The deal to make him at the time the most expensive player in the history of English football was no more or less remarkable than how the average tedious transfer saga is conducted, though a bout of opportune "sickness" left a nasty aftertaste.
It only really got ugly when his agent Aidy Ward gave an interview with the London Evening Standard (via the Telegraph) in which it is claimed he said Sterling would not sign a new deal at Liverpool even if they offered him £900,000-a-week, before labelling Jamie Carragher "a knob" for criticising his client. As sound bites go, it was about as incendiary as hosting a barbecue in a deodorant factory.
Had he not been suspended, those in red nestled in the Etihad's South Stand on Saturday would have afforded Sterling the type of industrial reception that in normal everyday society would less cross the line over common decency than lasso it around the neck. In footballing parlance, it would likely be filed under "harmless banter."
It would be pious to the point of being disingenuous, though, for this writer to overly decry the piss-taking and pantomime booing masquerading as something altogether more menacing. The game's visceral edge, for all its infantile posturing, is what makes going to a football match different to attending any other sporting occasion. Make that any other occasion—period. The use of "different" in this instance is a diplomatic way of saying better.
The problem is less how Liverpool supporters treat Sterling, than how they treat everyone else. His slight against Liverpool, perceived or otherwise, gives a tangible reason for their dislike. Quite why every other set of supporters, or at least most, take offence on behalf of the Merseysiders is puzzling to the extent it would be remiss not to address whether something darker is going on. I asked a friend who has been a Manchester City season-ticket holder for over 20 years whether Sterling is routinely singled out for abuse. His answer was unequivocal: Yes.
Such is football's masochistic tendencies, Premier League players are long-since predisposed to the idea taking a corner in front of rival supporters is tantamount to making a lewd suggestion about each of their mothers, yet even amid this theatre of the absurd, the venom reserved for Sterling is another level. It could not be more noxious were it shot from a forked tongue.
Despite accusations to the contrary, Sterling is far from a delicate flower. He might jut out his chin, but he's never been less than ready to accept his penance.
In a nicely self-deprecating interview with the Guardian's Jamie Jackson in March, Sterling laid the blame for receiving a lifetime's worth of criticism by the age of 22 squarely at the door of his face. As ridiculous as it sounds, as much as we'd never concede to holding such rank prejudices, he makes a compelling case.
"I've got that face.
"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."
In Immortality, the novelist Milan Kundera wrote: "The serial number of a human specimen is the face, that accidental and unrepeatable combination of features. It reflects neither character nor soul, nor what we call the self. The face is only the serial number of a specimen."
Sterling went on to say: "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?'"
The stories he is referring to are a spate of articles published in the immediate aftermath of Euro 2016. Two days after Great Britain decided to leave the European Union, the England national side showed just how easily a swift exit from Europe could be negotiated via an insipid loss to Iceland in the last 16. If former England manager Roy Hodgson had been conducting Brexit talks we'd be out by now.
Yet it was not the manager who bore the greatest brunt of criticism, despite only turning up for a press conference in the days after the Iceland loss under considerable duress. He looked so confused it was as if he had been asked to open a cat sanctuary in Montpellier. His opening gambit caught the zeitgeist perfectly: "I don't really know what I'm doing here."
The real scorn, however, was reserved for Sterling. A 20-year-old who had failed to carry the expectations of a nation whose football team had not won an international tournament for half a century. It was hard to tell for sure whether it was his headphones or earrings responsible for England's shambolic performance in France, but certain sections of the British press were determined to hold a root-and-branch investigation into the matter. No stone would be left un
One broadsheet, on learning of Sterling's recall for the Iceland match after being out of form in England's first couple of group games (he was OK against Russia, poor against Wales), embedded a ticker to a webpage to inform readers how much he had earned during the time they had been reading. It would have been more interesting to see a ticker showing how much whomever thought up such a tawdry idea earns. However much it is, it's too much.
After the game, the same paper was incandescent as to why such feted players could not cope with the pressure. There's probably a simple Venn diagram that could help explain.
One England supporter set up a crowd-funding page to raise money to send Sterling home from France. I'd have happily bankrolled any crowd-funding effort to send that supporter to France. It never ceases to amaze how the people angriest about England being crap are so universally determined to make hate figures out of young players one suspects are not deliberately playing poorly. For Sterling today, read John Barnes before him.
In French publication L'Equipe (via the Mirror), fluent 'Allo 'Allo speaker Joey Barton penned a column with a knife in claiming Sterling had been "poor for two years" and was technically "very limited" and "clumsy." He even went as far as to ask: "Without his pace, would he be a professional?" Now-now, Joey, not everyone can be Socrates the Brazilian and Greek all rolled into one.
The coup de grace over this period was perhaps the front page The Sun dedicated to "Obscene Raheem." Essentially the story revolved around a video posted by a friend of Sterling in which the player shows a group of mates around a large house. The Sun thought, but couldn't be sure, he had bought it despite it being "just hours after arriving home in disgrace after being dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland."
There weren't even any stocks in the garden for him to hang his head. Repeated use of the term "bling" throughout makes for an uncomfortable read, with Daniel Harris in the New Statesman at the time having written a compelling piece titled: "Racism in British football is clear in our newspapers as well as the stands."
As it transpired it was a house he had bought for his single mother, widely known to be a steadying influence on a player who, by his own admission, is no angel. Sterling's father was murdered in Maverley, a dangerous region of Kingston, Jamaica, when the player was just nine.
Amid the murky depths it scrapes, a dash of humour can be found in the similar disdain the Sun piece reserves for a "gravelled" drive as it does a crystal-encrusted bathroom sink. Apparently, Liberace insisted on gravel throughout his properties.
A few days later the same newspaper published a story of a young semi-professional footballer who had become a drug dealer. A picture of Sterling accompanied the piece, despite him having nothing whatsoever to do with the story. It's a shame about those stocks.
In January this year, three tabloids published pictures of him shopping in Poundland. It was deemed newsworthy despite the pictures dating back to 2014. The tone, of course, was mocking. If he spends a lot, he's ostentatious; if he spends a little, he's a penny-pincher. When he was "caught" eating a sausage roll (that's not a euphemism, it genuinely was a sausage wrapped in pastry) in a limited edition Bentley, it was the perfect juxtaposition.
It was not just dyed-in-the-wool City fans that this week pointed out Sterling received more stick for shopping in Poundland than Wayne Rooney has for being charged with drink-driving.
On Tuesday, the Telegraph ran a story headlined "Manchester City will offload Raheem Sterling, say Premier League rivals." Which rivals and what they said exactly goes unstated in a piece so fluffy it is a wonder it didn't get accosted by Hugh Hefner before it went to press.
It reads: "Telegraph Sport understands a number of the top Premier League clubs and managers are under the impression the 22-year-old is set to eventually become a casualty of the Spaniard's spending."
The spirit of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward lives on. Tune in next week to find out whose fence will be creosoted, according to neighbours. If Barton had hedged his bets so well he might have been able to afford not to write such embittered columns.
Back in February 2013, when Sterling was well on his way to establishing himself in Liverpool's first team, in a campaign for which he made the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist, I interviewed him for Sky Sports.
Throughout, he repeatedly referred to me as "Sir." Whether he was being unfailingly polite or playing me for a fool it was hard to tell, as the interview was conducted over the phone. Whichever, I rationalised it as being either endearingly earnest or entertaining in its chutzpah. Looking back at the interview, with hindsight, perhaps the most interesting line is his take on Luis Suarez:
"From what I've seen since I've been at Liverpool, I'd say he thrives off what people say about him and uses it as a motivation.
"Whatever you say about him won't bother him, though, because he's been under pressure for the whole of his career. He's had to listen to talk about him for such a long time, it's not going to ever get him down.
"He's not really bothered in my opinion. He's such a brilliant player; I can't really see how anything that is said about him will affect him on the pitch."
If Sterling can apply the same logic to his own career, he may yet get to where he wants to go. And when he does, he can have as many crystal-encrusted taps as he bloody well likes.