Raheem Sterling once explained the tattoo on his arm showing him in a No 10 shirt looking up at English football’s home: "As a young boy I used to walk around Wembley or be on my bike. Hopefully one day I can be wearing that number 10 in that stadium, be in my hometown, and hopefully be the king of Wembley one day.”
If Sterling had a sense of destiny, close to where he attended Wembley’s Copland School, many England fans wanted Jack Grealish to start ahead of him in England’s opening Euro 2020 win over Croatia. Was Gareth Southgate about to repeat the ‘mistake’ Pep Guardiola made in the Champions League final, where Manchester City’s manager overlooked Sterling’s underwhelming form and started him against Chelsea?
Sterling has a knack of controlling his own life story, from his MBE on Friday to his first tournament goal in a promising, mature England performance that spared Southgate a long night of justifying his picks.
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England’s winning goal arrived after 56 minutes when another ‘justified’ pick, Kalvin Phillips, slipped the ball into Croatia’s penalty box and Sterling beat a defender and the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand. His celebration was intense and prolonged in front of England fans who weren’t always patient with his efforts to establish himself as a front-rank international.
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England celebrate Raheem Sterling's goal
Image credit: Getty Images
At Euro 2016 in Marseille, Sterling emerged from the Russia game and posted “#TheHatedOne” on Instagram. For a time his international career seemed doomed to negativity. Good times soon followed but his mediocre form at City this year was so pronounced that rumours placed him on Guardiola’s summer transfer list.
Selection has been a rolling bunfight among pundits and fans in the run-up to this tournament and Sterling was on many lists of candidates for the bench. A TV interviewer suggested as much when asking him whether he felt he justified his place with his goal. Sterling looked bemused by that reading of events.
“To be honest, I always said to myself if I come here, growing up two minutes down the road, I know I have to score here,” he said. A skill of playing in tournaments, he added, “is knowing when to block noise out - and that’s what I’ve done. I haven’t tried to listen to any noise outside, I’ve tried to focus on myself and what I bring to the team.”
What he brought to the team was a finish more clinical than some of his attempts on goal this season at City. As Southgate said after the game: "We can’t have all the burden of scoring on Harry [Kane’s] shoulders.”
True, but Rashford and Grealish might have looked like better bets to take the heat off Kane, who was ineffective here. Southgate, though, evoked the Bobby Robson principle of staying loyal to players who have delivered for him. The difference is that Robson had only a small core of world-class ability. Southgate’s problem is accommodating a wave of creative talent, much of it young, and all of it accompanied by a bandwagon.
There was trouble-in-store for Southgate on England’s team-sheet - should things go wrong. Neither of his left-backs - Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell - made it into the team. There is a school of England fan that loathes seeing two defensive midfielders, even though that tactic is not hard to justify, in some circumstances. With Kane, Foden, Mount and Sterling all included, the team was hardly lacking threat. Grealish, however, has acquired hallowed maverick status. Foden may have the Gazza hair-do but it’s Grealish who improvises most like Gascoigne.
Mason Mount, Phil Foden
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Sterling will be hard to dislodge now. “His work without the ball was phenomenal, positionally and in his desire to track back and stop them advancing,” Southgate said. Crucially, though, teams change in tournaments, players are promoted, demoted and injured. Formation changes open doors to players previously stuck on the bench. Opportunities are taken and squandered. Friday’s match against Scotland will present a different type of challenge in which Sterling, along with all of England’s players, will need to excel in a more British style of confrontation.
Receiving his MBE last week, Sterling talked of his “motivation for racial equality.” He was honoured as a public figure who has taken a stand. Three days later he was rejoicing in front of England’s followers, some of whom booed the taking of the knee before cheers and claps drowned them out.
Sterling’s last act at his hometown stadium was to throw the captain’s armband to Rashford, having taken it earlier from Kane. So: Queen’s birthday list recipient on Friday then match winner and briefly England captain on Sunday, in an opening win against 2018 World Cup finalists.
This England side is more technically proficient and assured than the one that lost a World Cup semi to Luka Modric and company in Moscow. No assessment of England’s chances can be made without acknowledging the strength of half a dozen other countries in this tournament. But if Southgate keeps making the right calls, as he did with Sterling, his management can only complement the swagger in this team. He certainly knows them all well enough.
Early days. This is a group stage from which only eight of 24 will drop away. Sterling’s Wembley tattoo though was nicely prescient for this day. Local pride goes a long way.
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