It was when someone mentioned Euro 2004 in Raheem Sterling’s presence, with a reference to the impact Wayne Rooney had on that competition, that we were reminded about the youthfulness of the new kid on the block. Sterling’s face was a blank and, when he was asked to pick out the first tournament he could actually remember, it turned out Luke Shaw, at 18, was not the only member of England’s squad with zero recollections beyond the last World Cup. Frank Lampard, sitting directly to Sterling’s right, was among those blinking in astonishment. “That’s a scary thought,” said a player who turns 36 on Friday.
Sterling was being asked about 2004 because of the similarities between the way he has announced himself on the world stage, at the age of 19, with those prodigious performances from an 18-year-old Rooney – the original assassin-faced baby – for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team in Portugal.
The stories are legend of how Rooney, as a kid, used to play with a tennis ball or a screwed-up drinks can on the back streets of Croxteth. Sterling has a few tales like that himself, except his manor was the St Raphael’s estate in Neasden, just off the North Circular. It is barely a Joe Hart punt from Wembley Stadium and Sterling talked about how he and his mates would make the short journey on their BMXs to make the most of the open space of the car parks.
He also thought back to those days at Copland Community School when he excelled so much as a 14-year-old that his PE teacher, Paul Lawrence, put him in with the under-18s, on playing fields where the arch of Wembley rose into the distance. On Sterling’s left arm there is the ink that symbolises this part of his childhood. His tattoo is of a young boy, standing on Wembley Way, looking up at the national stadium with a ball under his arm and the No10 on his shirt. “I grew up five minutes from the stadium,” he said. “I’d say to myself: ‘One day, when the stadium is built, I’d like to play there.’ That’s why I got the tattoo: a young boy with a football in his hands, looking at the stadium, saying it’s a dream.”
This is one of Sterling’s first appearances before the media on England duty and it is impossible to get away from his boyishness. More than once he mentioned the advice he had been taking from “mum” –Nadine, who brought the family over from Kingston in Jamaica in 2002 and takes such an active part in his career he says he sometimes wonders if she thinks she is José Mourinho. “Before the game she just told me to relax, not put too much pressure on myself and just try to do my best. After the game she dropped me a text. She can be tough on me, though. She has told me before that I don’t put the ball into the back of the net enough.”
Sterling, in many ways, has become the symbol of the new England. “Fearless” was the word Steven Gerrard used to describe his performance against Italy, when the teenager took Wayne Rooney’s usual position in attack. Lampard had been asked to chaperone Sterling through his interviews and the oldest player in the squad was asked what advice he could give a player almost half his age.
“It is very simple,” he replied. “As a footballer, carry on doing what you’re doing. Raheem is a different player to me. He’s instinctive. It’s probably hard for him to answer questions of ‘how do you do this, how do you do that?’ because he doesn’t think that way. He thinks on the pitch at the last second because of his ability and pace. I probably had to think a bit more, work a bit harder behind the scenes, but he has that instinct. So keep doing what you’re doing, enjoy it. I’ve seen him play for the last six months for Liverpool and it has been spectacular.
“Off the pitch, it is harder. It is such a goldfish bowl these days. Try to listen to the people around him. It sounds like his mother’s very strong with him. That will always help. He won’t want to upset her too much. We all need one of those. But Raheem isn’t walking around as if he runs the hotel behind the scenes because he’s been playing so well. He’s very level-headed. So keep that up.”
What Sterling has done is make himself undroppable for Thursday’s game against Uruguay. The debate before the Italy match was about whether Hodgson would dare play him. Now the only issue is whether he continues in the central role that Rooney – and Danny Welbeck – want or operates from a wider position.
At Liverpool Sterling has a manager in Brendan Rodgers who fully trusts in him. Now he can say the same about the national team. “They [the two managers] just try to take the pressure off me, so that I can express myself,” Sterling says. “That’s the most important thing as a young player. They want me to show what I can do on the ball. I’m just learning, trying to be fearless in my approach to games and trying not to think about the opposition too much, doing my own thing.”
He seems happily oblivious to the fuss about Rooney being moved to the left to accommodate him. “I don’t think he’s been moved to the side for me,” he said. “I just think that the manager thought at the time that was the best thing to do. But I don’t think the team was built around me necessarily.”
Yet that was precisely what happened against Italy and, if it were to be the same against Uruguay, nobody could really complain given the way he has responded to his sending-off in England’s penultimate friendly against Ecuador. Two things have happened since then. One, Hodgson has changed his mind about Sterling’s tackle on Antonio Valencia and told him that kind of recklessness cannot happen again. Secondly, every single player in the squad has agreed: Sterling has been England’s outstanding performer in training.
He has quickly established himself among the older players, joining in the fun when one of the team masseurs, Paul Small, announced it was his 50th birthday and – footballers being footballers – the pride of England, in Lampard’s words, “strapped him up and volleyed a few balls at him, as us mature boys do”.
Yet it is the way, as Lampard alluded to, that Sterling still seems remarkably down to earth that also stands out. He acknowledges, for starters, that there are still parts of his game that are raw. “The most important thing for me last season was to try and improve my goalscoring record. I was getting chances but wasn’t finishing them and I had to be more composed in the box. I can learn from Studge [Daniel Sturridge] and people like that at the training ground. That’s something I will be working on more in the future, definitely.”
Ask him a question about the history of England’s team and Sterling will be left groping for an answer. Yet he passes just about every other test. He was “in a bit of a mood” after the Italy game, too, which shows his competitive nature. “I know there have been some great players who have played for this country,” he says. “As I was growing up, I watched Wayne, Frank, Stevie and they were all players I looked up to. It is a real honour to be alongside players like this who have done so much for their club and country.”