Tuesday, July 27

The day a preteen Raheem Sterling showed the toughness that shapes him | Raheem Sterling


RAheem Sterling was just getting started, but the Queens Park Rangers, who had hired him in 2005 just before his 11th birthday, knew what they had. According to Joe Gallen, the director of youth development at the time, it was something special. And then he would do everything he could to make sure young Sterling was as happy and comfortable as possible.

Gallen, now deputy director of Leyton Orient, enjoyed chatting with Sterling in his office at the Harlington boot camp, sometimes just the two of them, other times with the protégé’s mother, Nadine. He asked Sterling how school was going, how his family was doing; there would be football tips, words of encouragement. One day, however, Sterling had something to vent about.

“Raheem said he didn’t think the coach was good,” says Gallen. “It was as direct as that, really. I was around 12 years old and it was quite a statement for someone that age. I asked him why and he said he didn’t think he was up to the task, that the training wasn’t good enough. “

And here’s the thing. Gallen looked at him, secretly watched a couple of sessions, and realized that Sterling was right. The team would soon have another coach.

“I was really surprised because when I was chatting with Raheem, it was about his school, what his mother was like, that kind of thing,” says Gallen. “I did not expect or ask for that. He didn’t mean it in a rude way, it was in a very considerate and steely way. He had that toughness in him even then. He said it quietly but it had a bit of weight.

“For a 12-year-old to come out and say that and be correct, that’s the key. I worked in the school and youth development section for the first 10 years of my coaching career and I never, ever saw anything like it. “

It is at times like these, when Sterling makes his way into Euro 2020, doing more than any other player to lead England into Sunday’s final against Italy, that such anecdotes have a particular resonance. Even as a child, Sterling knew what he wanted, what he needed, and he wasn’t afraid to act on it. As now, he has known what England needed: an experienced player to impose his quality and personality in the tournament.

Raheem Sterling in action for England against Germany in Euro 2020, the match in which he scored the first goal.
Raheem Sterling in action for England against Germany in Euro 2020, the match in which he scored the first goal. Photograph: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

Aside from the 0-0 group stage draw against Scotland, when all England players struggled, Sterling has delivered fearlessly, his performances never falling below eight out of 10.

The Manchester City striker was decisive again in Wednesday’s semi-final 2-1 over Denmark, smashing his rivals from first to last, forcing Simon Kjær’s own goal draw and earning the penalty that Harry Kane converted into a rebound. . Earlier in the final, Sterling had three goals and one assist. Gareth Southgate spoke after the tie with Denmark about how his team had found a way to win, even if it was a battle. His talisman is the epitome of lack of remorse.

Sterling’s path in the game would have been different if it weren’t for John O’Brien, who was responsible for bringing him to QPR. The club’s head of youth recruiting at the time, who also worked for Wycombe Wanderers, Arsenal, Liverpool and Fulham before. his death in 2015, had repaired and honed relationships with key youth soccer figures in the London Borough of Brent, meaning the best players would be sent back to QPR for trials rather than elsewhere.

“It bothered me that the best kids from Wembley and Brent, where Raheem grew up, went to Watford,” says Gallen. “Because I consider that area to be in West London and it is QPR territory. John got our relationships back on track and without that the guys who came in then wouldn’t have come, including Raheem. John was a good explorer, highly respected. Shirt and tie, he looked like a businessman, always impeccable ”.

Gallen can still imagine Sterling’s first test game for QPR, in which he scored a hat-trick. The following weekend, he was invited to come back and scored more goals.

“I looked at it with my brother, Steve, who was a part-time staff member, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s Ian Wright,’” says Gallen. “I was thinking, ‘He’s a little small but that shot and the speed…’ I told the club secretary, Terry Springett, we had to sign him right away. That’s when we got Raheem’s mother in, discussed our plan for him, and were able to get him a five-year registration contract. “

Raheem Sterling as an academy player at QPR.
Raheem Sterling as an academy player at QPR. Photograph: Courtesy of the Evening Standard

The length of the deal protected QPR and meant that when Liverpool took him away when he was 15 years old, the London club charged a large fee. “I have been told that it amounted to over £ 10 million,” says Gallen.

Gallen remembers going to the Brent Cross Mall and buying Sterling a tracksuit and boots: “the look on his face and his mother’s,” he says. And, if Sterling wasn’t always an angel, Gallen was always there to support him.

“They were in the minibus coming back from a game, the coaches were driving it, and there was a lot of commotion,” says Gallen. “Whatever happens and I don’t think it was very good, if I’m honest, there was a clamor for me to get rid of the three or four children who had actually been playing, including Raheem. But I just told Terry [Springett]: ‘Tell everyone they can leave before Raheem leaves.’


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