It fuels the fire of every football supporter who believes players have lost touch with the modern day fan. There have been plenty of “I want to leave” cries by footballers before and few, if any, ever end with the hosting club’s supporters understanding the player’s point of view.
The transfer system in football is a complex and unique one, and for us fans there are unwritten rules which can dictate whether we agree with a player leaving or not. If your club is doing well and a good, decent, loyal player is sold then we can reconcile ourselves with a belief “the club must know best”. It can be tough if your club has sold a player for the money, and judgement is held over until we see how well the money is then re-invested. But it is generally accepted for the employer, the club, to decide when they have had enough of the employee, the player.
This is not like the industries we all work in. If you fancy moving companies then you just apply to another company and don’t make anything public until you’ve been accepted. It’s rare for your employer to negotiate with your new one for you to move, and they certainly wouldn’t receive a fee for their trouble either.. But in football we have, what seems, an arcane system of moving people around like cattle.
The imaginary line is crossed when a player engineers a move. Of course few of us ever know the truth of why a player is sold. Perhaps he’s injury-prone, maybe he just didn’t get on with the management or the team, or just couldn’t fit into the style of play they wanted? Clubs don’t generally like a player to be in control during this process as they would rather keep the supporters onside during the whole episode.
Another odd aspect of supporter behaviour is how they don’t like players deciding to leave their club. Why is it that we’re only too pleased for players to join our club, then hate them leaving, when we’re quick to forget they’ve already left another club for ours in the first place? But that’s the way it is.
Raheem Sterling has been gradually building up to a moment of engineering a move away from Liverpool. This process can be likened to a game of cards, or chess, and Sterling has now made his intentions clear by playing some of his best cards. Of course Liverpool hold the ace as Sterling is under contract and if they don’t want to accept an offer then they don’t have to. Clubs can become so reliant on transfers that they can be reluctant to keep a player who doesn’t want to be there, for fear of damaging morale and ultimately affecting the fortunes of the team. Then of course there is the Bosman ruling which allows a player to leave at the end of his contract.
‘Bosman’ has changed the dynamics of the player/club relationship and seen the emergence of a power shift towards agents. Agents are the conduit for the player to engineer a move. Players can hide behind them when contract negotiations are going on, and they can even be the butt of a club’s ire if they can’t get the player to agree to their terms.
Sterling’s agent is in the process of leaving a larger firm to set up on his own. It would appear to the outsider he is very keen to promote his own cause presumably in a bid to attract more clients. It’s an interesting tactic but one which is surely only to provide him with clients who want an agent who thinks only of himself and them, rather than understand the nuances of keeping a player’s employer involved to produce an outcome all parties can be pleased with.
Aidy Ward has worked with respected names in the agency business such as Impact Sports Management and Rob Segal. His clients include Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Saido Berahino. Few will be surprised that Berahino seems to be as keen as discussing a new contract with his club, West Brom, as Sterling does with Liverpool.
Ward recently came to prominence after the Evening Standard reported a tirade, attributed to Ward, rubbishing the club, Jamie Carragher and everyone else, it seemed, stating Sterling wouldn’t sign a contract for any money.
Some may argue Ward is only doing his job and as employed by the player he could argue he has the player’s best interests to consider and is only concerned about the player’s career rather than what a club wants. But what Ward has created is a rift between the player and his employer and unless we end up with a situation where players are employed by agents alone, then this is not going to end well. You rarely hear of experienced and competent agents as they exist in the background to advise their clients and deal with contract negotiations on their behalf. Ward appears to be looking for his fifteen minutes of fame and could ultimately ruin the prospects of Sterling, Berahino et al.
Clubs, despite what individuals like Ward may prefer, do still hold the balance of power and so they should, they are the employer after all. Imagine how any prospective club will be anticipating contract discussions with Ward if he touts Sterling around. If they do sign him, will they ever know whether he’s happy or not? Or will it depend on whether Ward decides Sterling needs to move clubs again?
Liverpool bought Sterling from Queen’s Park Rangers academy by Rafa Benitez in February 2010. He was a regular in the Liverpool youth side eventually being handed his First Team debut by Kenny Dalglish against Wigan in March 2012. Liverpool have done very well to keep him away from the media regarding club issues. When Sterling has been in the press it’s been for non-football incidents. But this whole episode has possibly driven a wedge between the two sides which may never be breached.
When I think back on coverage around the club on Sterling I cannot recall much from him regarding how proud he is to be a Liverpool player, who is favourite player of the past was and how he’s determined to do whatever is required to bring success to the club. Not every player does this, I’ll admit, but for clubs such as Liverpool, we fans demand players understand the history, understand the stature, are respectful of what we believe it is like to wear the club’s colours.
Of course we don’t want the Harry Kewell example, when trying to convince us all how proud he was to wear the iconic number seven shirt he then struggled to name any of the previous incumbents! But if you want the fans to worship you then to declare your undying love for the club is a great way to achieve this. The absence of such a statement rarely matters, though, until contract negotiations hit the buffers and unless you have the supporters on your side you will suffer accusations of ‘not caring’, ‘only interested in money’ or other such fruitier labels.
Sterling, who is reportedly on a £30,000 per week, has two years left on his current contract. Things started to get messy at the beginning of the year when Brendan Rodgers made it publicly known he believed Sterling shouldn’t sign for more than £100,000 per week as this was more than enough for a player of his age and he would have plenty of opportunity in his career to earn the sort of sums which have been bandied about. There were suggestions ‘he’ had turned down an offer of this value and this gave him the idea give an interview trying to dispel the rumours about his motivation for his career. Liverpool were unaware of his plans for the interview and it’s clear they didn’t take kindly to it. It was a clumsy attempt to explain to supporters that Sterling wasn’t interested in the money, he was only interested in playing at the highest level.
Opinions were divided as to whether he managed to get this across, but what it did do was shine the spotlight on his subsequent performances. Fans were rightly justified in expecting him to take this determination onto the pitch and almost drag his team through to a top four finish in the Premier League. To almost all observers his form seemed to dip alarmingly. Other than a goal against Newcastle, he was unbelievably poor in front of goal with numerous examples of him ballooning a ball over the bar when put through on goal with a gaping net seemingly at his mercy. It would be very difficult to accuse Sterling of ‘busting a gut’ to try and help Liverpool qualify for the Champions League. Much as I don’t agree with the churlishness of the “call yourself worth £150,000?” accusations every time a pass is misplaced or a touch is poor, as if every player who is paid that amount is faultless, you have to say Sterling has given more than enough ammunition to this means of attack from supporters.
Contrast this with Luis Suarez. The summer of 2013 was full of rumours and counter-rumours of his desire to play anywhere other than Anfield. There was the suggestion he wanted to go to Arsenal, when it was clear to all concerned there’s no way Liverpool would sell him to a top four rival. Once the uncertainty came to an end the subsequent season was a memorable one for both Suarez and the club. No one could accuse Suarez of not trying at any point during that season as Liverpool came as close to winning their first League title since 1990 as they’ve ever done. This is where supporters are right to compare the difference.
Considering Sterling's performances this season, when the absence of Suarez and Sturridge propelled him to 'star status', in my opinion he has regressed as a player. Last season I was really impressed with his development in being able to kick a ball over distance. There were countless examples of him playing a through-ball to Suarez or Sturridge to run onto and he was even seen shooting from distance on numerous occasions. This season we have seen little of this and I am left with the view Liverpool is not weakened by his absence.
So my advice to you Raheem is go. Go, if you don’t think Liverpool can satisfy your exacting standards and requirements. You may never find a club who truly loves you, you may never find a club you truly love. You may end up like a Michael Owen, only truly loved when wearing the colours of your country rather than any of the domestic shirts you wore. I cannot really stomach the idea of Sterling lining up for Liverpool at the start of the new season, but if you somehow manage to come through it all I, along with many others, will expect you to concentrate on what you’re paid to do and do your utmost to help us get back into Champions League football.
But where would you go? Manchester City? Chelsea? Arsenal? Real Madrid? None of those clubs are likely to guarantee you regular first team starts, although they are likely to meet your agent’s salary targets. Real Madrid would be an interesting one, especially if Benitez gets the job. But are you prepared to for the public scrutiny in a way Gareth Bale has had to come to terms with?
And what if you are still with Liverpool in August? What will your agent make of this and will this drive a wedge between you and him rather than between you and the club.
One aspect which does cause me concern if Sterling is still at Anfield in three months’ time is how a post-Gerrard dressing room deals with him. Gerrard down the years has done so much for young players at Anfield and has often been the glue between players and club, but he’s not there now and we could be in for a period of latent mutiny. If this does transpire then the seeds of this uncertainty can be seen to have been planted throughout the Sterling saga.
Maybe the best thing for all concerned is to say ‘thanks for coming and have a nice life, now let’s move on’.