If Liverpool thought that the summer break would give Raheem Sterling a fresh perspective on his career situation, and if on some level they hoped that the time away would help him reconsider his immediate future, it seems they were sorely mistaken.
Sterling rejoined the team for the start of pre-season training at Melwood on Monday, but there was to be no softening of the stance he took at the end of last season, when he made his desire to leave Anfield abundantly clear. According to reports, Sterling told manager Brendan Rodgers in one of their first meetings back that he wished to be left out of the club’s impending tour of Asia.
The message was clear: The 20-year-old is still determined to push through his move away from the club, with Manchester City the presumed destination.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday:
The England forward has held talks with the Liverpool manager since returning to training on Monday. It is understood he not only reiterated his desire to leave this summer but asked to be omitted from the two-week trip to Thailand, Australia and Malaysia. ...
Sterling’s hardline stance further demonstrates the breakdown in relations since the 20-year-old rejected a £100,000-a-week contract extension last season. It also opens the way for City to make a third offer for the winger, who is under contract at Liverpool until 2017 on a £35,000-a-week deal.
Things were soon to get worse. On Wednesday reports indicated Sterling was absent from training entirely, with the player apparently “sick.” (He may have been, but the timing was nonetheless far from ideal.)
Then the Daily Mirror reported that Sterling’s mobile phone number had been leaked online overnight, meaning he had woken up on Wednesday morning to hundreds of aggressive—and racist—messages.
According to the Mirror, “Sterling is understood to have taken screenshots [of the abuse] as he considers his next move.” How he can use such messages to accelerate his departure is hard to see, but it would seem it has only hardened his resolve in that direction.
If Liverpool were not already in a standoff with their most valuable player, then they certainly are now—and the public nature of it does little to help their cause. The player undoubtedly, unashamedly wants to leave, while Liverpool have shown in the recent past (with Luis Suarez’s exit) that they will ultimately do deals for even their best players if the price offered is acceptable.
Manchester City have the money to hit that number, whatever it might be, so it is tempting to presume that this is a deal that will be done in the end. (They may even have suggested Sterling go down this path to accelerate proceedings.)
It just depends on how soon, as both parties are perhaps aware that the longer Liverpool hold out and fight against Sterling’s agitation, the higher the transfer fee they will eventually be able to procure.
That is not necessarily true, however. According to reports, Liverpool are heading inexorably toward a tribunal to decide the fee for one of the players they have already signed this summer, Danny Ings. This seems like an incidental detail, but it may yet have a significant impact on the Sterling saga.
We have not seen a tribunal set the fee for a young player for many seasons—arguably the last one that involved a comparable player was Daniel Sturridge’s £3.5 million move from City to Chelsea.
So Ings’ eventual price (if the tribunal does go ahead) will set a revised precedent for similar situations in the future—among them (potentially) Sterling’s, who would be a similar age and in a not-dissimiliar situation if he is able to finally walk away from Anfield in 2017.
For Liverpool, it is a delicate situation. They reportedly offered in the region of £5 million for Ings, while Burnley want closer to £8 million for the England under-21 international (and previously accepted a £12 million bid from Spurs).
If the tribunal sets the fee at less than £5 million, then Liverpool’s delight at that decision will be tempered by the realisation that they can expect a similarly low valuation for Sterling down the line (if things progress that far). City will jump on that.
On the other hand, of course, if the tribunal forces Liverpool to pay a high fee (around, or even above, what Burnley have valued Ings at) then that will at least give the Liverpool board the confidence that, should Sterling’s situation end the same unsatisfactory way, they will be awarded the significant compensation they feel that they deserve for one of the brightest talents in European football.
That would allow them to play hardball with both City and Sterling, giving them greater strength in negotiations that have reportedly already seen an offer of £40 million rejected. Even so, things are complicated further by the 20 percent sell-on clause Sterling’s old club, Queens Park Rangers, retain in him—meaning a significant chunk of whatever fee Liverpool end up commanding will head to west London.
A £40 million deal becomes just £32 million to Liverpool, for example, and they will surely want to pass that significant tax on to City. Even City have their limits, though.
If that is the case, Sterling is taking a significant risk with his career, leaving open the possibility that he may yet have to spend up to two years of his fledgling career at a club where he has now burned plenty of bridges. The fact that Sterling would take that risk at all indicates how confident he and his representatives must be that his current club will eventually acquiesce.
Sterling should be at least a little wary, however. It seems clear that City, while certainly attracted to Sterling’s talent, are equally enthusiastic about his status as a homegrown player.
City, perhaps more than any other elite Premier League side, have struggled to fulfill the homegrown quota over recent seasons, finding themselves persistently frustrated by the inability of the likes of Adam Johnson, Scott Sinclair and Dedryck Boyata to contribute to the first-team squad.
Sterling, firmly established as one of England’s star players, seems certain to avoid that fate, although whether he would start regularly remains to be seen. He shouldn’t necessarily be more confident of that than Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph, another “homegrown” player linked with a City move in recent weeks.
Micah Richards, the former City defender, revealed this week that Delph asked him about life at City, something Richards felt uneasy about endorsing fully.
"Every player wants to play at the highest level," Richards acknowledged (per the BBC). "If he's going to be playing Champions League, I don't know, but if he's going there to be a squad player, then no. ...
"So if he gets assurances he's going to play then the decision is his. I wouldn't say don't go to Manchester City, because if he's playing well he could play. It's just being given that chance.”
As Richards pointed out, James Milner moved in the other direction this summer due to his itinerant life at the Etihad.
Sterling may have the self-confidence that he would not suffer the same fate—he may even have already got unofficial assurances about a starting place—but City have great players in those attacking areas already, and at the very least, Sterling would face the sort of battle for spots he has not really had to contend with up to this point.
Plus, if City really have not encouraged this week's behaviour, it may have them rethinking their interest somewhat.
Sterling is used to getting his way—as previously noted, Liverpool were the first club to lure him away from his previous home with the promise of money and first-team opportunities—and he clearly expects to get it again this summer.
Having set out his stall at the end of last season, Sterling has made his position even clearer over the last few days. If Liverpool were not already resigned to losing him at some point, there must be a realisation now that there is little to no hope of him staying beyond the end of his current contract. Relationships appear to have broken down at this point, and there is rarely any recovery from that.
Liverpool’s task now is to extract as much money as possible from City, using City’s desire to sign Sterling against them just as City try to use Sterling’s determination to leave to their own advantage. It is an arm-wrestling contest from now until the summer window closes, with Sterling's actions now just having a small effect.
In the meantime, the big loser in all this is Sterling himself. He may eventually get the move he wants, and the salary package he feels he deserves, but as he waits, his reputation is plummeting.
What that means to him is hard to say, but it will nevertheless be difficult to recover—and it could haunt him down the line, especially if the City move doesn't live up to expectations.
"He's starting to get a reputation that could be hard to rid himself of in the future," as ex-Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said (on Kicca). "Are Man City fans looking at the situation and thinking this could be us in a few years?"
"I think this situation will only make Liverpool more determined to get the fee they feel Raheem is worth, rather than caving in to Raheem's and Man City's wishes."
There will be further twists to come.