When Raheem Sterling gazes out the window of Manchester City’s coach on the road to Wembley on Sunday, it will be no surprise if the winger’s dreams of League Cup glory are interrupted by a flashback to his childhood.
Sterling’s presence amid the pomp and circumstance of City’s League Cup final showdown with Liverpool represents a remarkable triumph in the face of adversity for the 21-year-old.
Only 11 years ago, Sterling was facing an uncertain future as a new arrival at Vernon House, a school for children with behavioural difficulties which is situated less than a mile from Wembley.
Transplanted from Jamaica when his mother was forced to move to London to improve her financial situation by working as a nurse, Sterling was struggling to adapt to the bleak surroundings of the west London estate that became his home from age five.
Sterling, who had no contact with his father before he was killed in a gang-related incident in Kingston when he was nine, was in danger of earning a potentially ruinous label as a disruptive pupil.
“He was a tiny little ball of energy, and sometimes that would tip over into anger and he would get aggressive with other kids,” his Vernon House teacher Chris Beschi told BBC Sport.
But, crucially, Sterling found an outlet for his growing pains whenever he had a ball at his feet and by the time he was 11 he had caught the eye of youth coaches at nearby QPR.
Unlike so many of his pampered contemporaries in the Premier League, who are whisked away to plush academies to learn their trade, Sterling’s football education had initially come on the streets, where he would play with a juice carton or a can if no ball was affordable.
– Mean streets –
“He was a street footballer,” former QPR academy chief Steve Gallen told Bleacher Report. “And he lived in Stonebridge, so these were mean streets. They didn’t mess about there.
“It helped develop his mentality. He was so small the bullies thought they could intimidate him.
“They couldn’t get close. He’d ride tackles and when they did hit him, it never bothered him for an instant. He had no fear.”
It wasn’t long before that tenacious attitude blended with Sterling’s innate talent to produce a player so promising that Liverpool signed him when he had yet to make a single professional appearance.
He quickly became the third youngest player in Liverpool’s history, making his debut aged 17 in 2012, and was just 17 years and 341 days old when he became the fifth youngest player to represent England later the same year.
Sterling’s off-the-cuff excellence in the maelstrom of Liverpool’s unsuccessful bid to win the Premier League in 2013-14 secured his reputation as the most gifted youngster of his generation.
But, with the Reds slumping a year later and City keen to sign him, Sterling infuriated Liverpool by rejecting a new contract, provoking an ugly dispute before he finally forced a move to Eastlands in July 2015 in a £49 million ($67 million, 62 million euros) deal that made him the most expensive player in the world aged 21 or younger.
Sterling’s naked ambition drew plenty of criticism, but, shrugging it off in the same way he hurdles challenges on the pitch, the winger has gradually established himself as one of City’s key figures.
And if he delivers an influential display to win the first major silverware of his career against his old club, Sterling will have graduated with honours in the most fitting venue.
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