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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Raheem Sterling never far from eye of a storm as Gareth Southgate makes a statement

England and Manchester City star has had an exemplary year but this time the halo has slipped

A couple of months ago, in one of the England squad’s first practice sessions of the season, Joe Gomez, all 1.9 metres of him, went into a challenge for the ball with 1.7m Raheem Sterling. Some observers found it surprising how tough the smaller man proved in the duel. So much so it became a conversation point, light-heartedly, once the session was over.

Gareth Southgate, the England manager, described the scene and offered it as an anecdote to show off both the healthy climate in the camp - competitive but full of human warmth and respect - and to demonstrate how Sterling, the little man with the big-hearted drive, had developed a physical toughness to go alongside his purposeful elegance with the ball.

“He and Joe had a shoulder-to-shoulder moment,” Southgate said at the time. “It was hysterical. Of course, they were bantering about it for the rest of the week.”

Southgate went on to praise the maturity of Sterling, a footballer who has been obliged to take on many daunting collisions in a life that began with few privileges and lurched suddenly into wealth and fame.

Sterling, 24, was a child prodigy at 15; he was being called a spoilt, entitled brat before the end of his teens; he has been accused of crass insensitivity to the perceived responsibilities to the public that come with his sporting status. Yet, lately, he has also been celebrated for his understated social activism, his generosity and his intelligence, on and off the field. And all of this crowded into a very short time.

That he has a short fuse, one sparked in the heat of a season-defining Premier League defeat for his Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday and was then relit in what witnesses have described as a provocative confrontation with Liverpool's Gomez in the England canteen on Monday, ought not to shock. But so exemplary has much been of Sterling’s conduct over the last 12 months that the incident has a lasting resonance - saintly Sterling's halo abruptly removed.

Sterling is English football’s reigning Player of the Year. He is a figurehead for the battle against racism, and has made thoughtful observations on how parts of the media might contribute better to that battle. His studious professional development, meanwhile, from a sporadically brilliant influencer of games to the most consistently effective forward in a dazzling City means that many, many coaches other than Southgate regularly cite him as the footballer kids should look at and copy.

All of which is a long journey from where Sterling reckoned he was three years ago. He saw how he was depicted in parts of the mainstream and social media, and referred to himself, with a weary irony, as ‘The Hated One‘.

He had at that stage been part, as a junior member of the squad, of two dispiriting England tournament campaigns. He had also left the club, Liverpool, where he served his apprenticeship and made his breakthrough, for City, playing hardball to make the move go through and earning a staggering amount of money for a 21-year-old. Anfield, where Sterling had lost his cool with Gomez on Sunday, has been a hostile place for Sterling to go ever since that transfer.

Last year, with England, he was in the eye of other storms. Sterling has a tattoo of an assault rifle on the outside of his right calf and, revealing it in a practice session ahead of the Russia World Cup, he faced an avalanche of criticism for promoting gun violence. Sterling responded by explaining the tattoo signified nothing of the sort, but commemorated his father, who was shot dead in Sterling’s native Jamaica when his son was only two. He moved with his mother to England three years later.

During the furore over the tattoo and a late arrival for England duty at around the same time, Southgate was his strongest ally. The manager took a fiercely protective position. It is easy to conclude that loyalty has been partly rewarded by Sterling bringing the benefits of all his blossoming as a City player directly to the national team.

The statistics are startling: in his first 45 matches for his country, Sterling scored two goals. He has 10 from his last 10 caps, a run that began with a brace of goals away against Spain, a threshold moment that visibly delighted Southgate. “It was such a huge weight lifted for him,” the manager said. “He almost jumped six foot in the stadium.”

Thirteen months on from that moment, Southgate has been as forthright in punishing Sterling for the "disturbance" he is deemed to have caused in confronting Gomez - pursuing the brief altercation they had at Anfield and which Gomez believed had been settled with a hug there and then - as he was in backing the player through the noisy controversy over the tattoo and his poor time-keeping.

Southgate has decided Sterling will not play in the Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro on Thursday, an occasion which, being the 1000th fixture in England’s long history, has already been made into a festival of togetherness, with all surviving former captains and coaches invited to attend.

Any clash between players that spills over from club enmities, offends one of Southgate’s guiding principles. “One of our strengths is that we’ve been able to separate club rivalries from the national team,” said the manager.

Although he will appreciate Sterling’s rapid apology, Southgate is more than prepared to make an example of a footballer he has spent much of his time hailing as exemplary.

Updated: November 12, 2019 06:17 PM