By Paul Tomkins.
Raheem Sterling’s agent, Aidy Ward, is doing his level best to take the spotlight off the performance of anyone else connected to the club, bar his client. So in some ways a few people at Liverpool might welcome the distraction, even if it is in many ways somewhat unpalatable.
I have some sympathy with Sterling’s plight.
Or rather, I did. Not any more.
Apparently £900,000 a week wouldn’t keep Ward’s client at Anfield, and the proposed meeting between the club and the player, scheduled for tomorrow, has been cancelled by the club. This has got uglier than Luke Chadwick.
Sterling is not the devil – just a young man with an annoying agent. The winger joined Liverpool aged 15 from QPR, and we had no objections when he left them, so we can’t be too upset now – although there is a way to request a move away from a club, and this isn’t necessarily it.
And there’s no doubt that Sterling has been underpaid, at ‘just’ £35,000 a week, in relation to the going rate and his abilities, in a squad full of those paid on paid reputation. But he’s been offered what seems a very fair new wage for his talent, achievements and potential.
The situation has been handled horribly. Agents are there to protect their clients’ interests and reputation, not just their income. Sterling has been demonised in many quarters, and that’s clearly down to bad advice, which has caused a PR nightmare. By all accounts he’s a good kid, but it doesn’t seem that way to most onlookers.
There’s nothing wrong with a 20-year-old being ambitious, but it’s not like Sterling is at a small club, or lacking game-time, or seeing his England chances hit. The grass may look greener on the other side, but plenty of young players have struggled after moving clubs; indeed, many players in general struggle to do so. Why not take a couple more years to focus on developing in an environment where you know you’ll be a key player? Do you really need to be winning things at 20?
If he wanted trophies or the Champions League he had the chance to play better to help achieve that goal. In the end he cannot say that he did everything he could to help the Reds to a better finish – and you can only blame so much on Dejan Lovren.
Sterling’s form was impressive right up until the needless TV interview – which contradicted his desire to let his football do the talking. His form then dipped dramatically, as if, from that moment, he’d talked himself into having to prove a worth beyond £100,000 every week.
No one ever gave a shit what Luis Suarez was earning when he went onto the field, did they? Even after he pulled a similar stunt two years ago. Sterling had effectively sounded like he was too good for roughly £100k per game. That never looks good.
If Sterling wants to play in his best position – an annoying, if partly understandable demand from any player in this selfish age – he only need look at Steven Gerrard, whom I saw play at both left-back and right-back early in his career, as well as in a fairly rigid right-hand role at times under Gérard Houllier, before becoming a right-sided roamer under Rafa Benítez, and then a second-striker. In between he played hundreds of times in his preferred position.
Rather than do him any harm, it only broadened his education, whether he always liked it or not. It also helped the team.
It’s a sad fact of modern life that people will have been in Sterling’s ear saying “you’re too good for that”. We all “deserve better”, don’t we? – and that makes us feel unhappy with what we have. We all have people in our lives who, in trying to boost us, talk a load of old nonsense, parroting what they’ve seen in Hollywood films. Louis CK does a great thing on this (as he does on pretty much everything). No, you’re really not that special, no matter what your friends (and agents) tell you.
Indeed, Dennis Bergkamp played at full-back in the Ajax academy. If I was a manager, I’d just say that to any player any time he complained. Unless the player is as good as – or better than – Bergkamp (and he won’t be), then his response should be “Okay boss, you’ve got me there – I’ll shut the fuck up now.”
I’d like to see Sterling sent the reserves if he doesn’t sign a new deal. FSG and Rodgers took that line with Luis Suarez, so why wouldn’t they do so with Sterling, who at this stage is a far less proven talent?
If he can face a year in the reserves (or the U21s these days), he’ll still have another year left in the reserves after that. I’d be quite happy to see him stay in the U21s for two years, and let him leave on a free, if he thinks he’s capable of waving goodbye to two of the most vital years for any player’s development; and also, in the process, around £65,000 a week on what he would otherwise have been paid.
And while he is in the Liverpool U21 side he can’t do any damage to the Reds by playing for any of their rivals. Obviously the transfer money can’t be reinvested, because there will be none (although there could be around £10m in developmental fees if he moves within the Premier League). But even if a player wants out, he can’t try and hold the club to ransom. If he does, they get to call his bluff and into the U21s he goes.
While it may put some players off joining the Reds – they won’t want to face the same situation – it would show that the club is not to be messed with. If you sign a contract then you should honour it – and while clubs often act poorly towards players (which I will come onto), players have a duty to stick to the paperwork they’ve signed. It’s there to protect them whether they need it or not, and therefore they should honour the amount agreed upon, whether they deserve more or not.
Obviously if both parties think a pay rise is in order, due to the quality of performance, then you happily agree to the changed terms – or, if the player wants, he is free to quietly allow his contract to run down, and make a decision as a free agent. He just has to face the prospect of being an outcast.
Remember, if Sterling ruptures his cruciate tomorrow he’ll still get paid next season; he’ll call upon his contract then.
I guess Fabio Borini is the other side of this particular coin. The club gave him a contract for what they thought he was worth at the time, and he has appeared to make every effort to play well (it just hasn’t happened). Rather than accept a move away, he has tried to force his way back into the picture – which he has done on a few occasions, only to yet again not play very well.
By contrast, Jordan Henderson did the very same thing in 2012 and look what’s happened to him.
Clubs shouldn’t be able to force players out the door. But if they do that, then they should expect players to try and force their way out the door. Equally, both sides can still to their guns, and ultimately the contract decides matters.
If you don’t want to be held to a contract, my advice would be not to sign one in the first place.
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