07 Dec 2019, 12:32 IST
Few, if any, Manchester City players will receive a bigger roar of approval than Raheem Sterling when the teams are read out before kick-off at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
The England forward will aim to inspire victory in the Manchester derby against United for his adoring public, before basking in its glow the following day – his 25th birthday.
Whatever the result, Sterling’s quarter-century also marks the one-year anniversary of bleak but life-altering day.
“The way they were looking at me, I had to see where all this anger was coming from,” he told the New York Times, remembering how he observed a small number of irate fans in the Matthew Harding Stand at Stamford Bridge, while retrieving the ball for a corner during a Premier League match City would lose 2-0 to Chelsea.
“I was listening in to hear what they were saying… ‘Nah, that can’t be what I heard’.”
Television replays that quickly went viral on social media suggested Sterling’s suspicions he had been subjected to racist abuse were correct.
This July, Chelsea also reached that conclusion as they banned one supporter for life and handed out sanctions from between one to two years for incidents at the same Premier League match. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to initiate criminal prosecutions.
By this stage, Sterling had long since altered the conversation.
‘Have a second though’
“Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game, as you can see by my reaction, I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better,” he wrote in an Instagram post the day after the game, in what remains a damning assessment of the atmospheres and sickening attitudes too often allowed to fester in football stadia – supposedly places of celebration and work for young athletes.
But Sterling was keen to turn the focus outwards, taking the opportunity to highlight the contrasting tones with which the Daily Mail reported on two of his young team-mates Phil Foden and Tosin Adarabioyo – one white, one black – buying houses for their mothers.
“This young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour,” Sterling posted, before imploring news outlets to “have a second thought about fair publicity”
Troy Townsend, head of development at anti-racism and discrimination organisation Kick It Out, felt this reframing was particularly timely given the events a week earlier at the north London derby, where a Tottenham fan threw a banana skin at Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
“My response was, literally, ‘Well done, Raheem’,” Townsend told Omnisport.
“The week before, [the Aubameyang incident] wasn’t racism to many. That wasn’t racism to people who have never experienced the act of the banana being thrown at them or being called a monkey.
“So, Raheem’s was a massive, great step. It let the media look at each other and I think that’s massive. In one post he’s made elements of the media change.”
Far from being hindered by the increased focus upon him as an eloquent and reluctant role model, Sterling has gone from strength to strength on the field.
That treble feeling
A brace in May’s FA Cup final saw him conclude last season with 25 club goals in all competitions as City claimed an unprecedented domestic treble – the first part of which, the EFL Cup, came as Sterling steered the decisive kick in a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea into the top corner.
There have been hat-tricks in the Champions League and for England, who he captained in June’s Nations League Finals semi-final versus the Netherlands. Now a reliable goalscorer for his country, he netted eight in qualification for Euro 2020.
The industry he urged to take a look at itself honoured Sterling, the 2018-19 Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year. The BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year gong could be added to his collection this month.
“It’s all about mentality. Mentality, maturity and growing up,” Sterling said ahead of the showdown with United.
“I’m obsessed with football, obsessed with scoring goals, obsessed with recovering quicker and obsessed with improving myself.”
Spiralling numbers show how fruitful that obsession has been, while Sterling’s maturity – a scuffle with Joe Gomez on international duty aside – is frequently evident.
Every time he intervenes on issues of racism, be it responding to he and England team-mates receiving abuse in Montenegro and Bulgaria, defending Italy striker Moise Kean or supporting Newport County Under-14 goalkeeper Ethan Ross, Sterling strikes at the heart of the issue and is a force for good.
He covered the funeral costs of Crystal Palace youth player Damary Dawkins, who tragically lost his battle with leukaemia, having dedicated an England goal against the Czech Republic to the 13-year-old.
Raheem the role model
Other examples of Sterling’s community mindedness could be found when he arranged tickets to City’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton and Hove Albion for 550 pupils from his old school, while last month he urged those able to among his 2.2million Twitter follows to register to vote in the upcoming UK general election.
“He’s a young, black role model for so many young people. His status will go far and beyond football, that’s for sure,” said Townsend, who feels Sterling can align with some of British football’s true pioneers and icons.
“You will have young people not just wanting to be Raheem Sterling the footballer, but who will want to be Raheem Sterling the human being.
“I take that as the kind of impact John Barnes had, when he was almost fighting racism by himself. Or Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson when they were at West Brom.
“With those forefathers, the generation before him, he will be recognised as someone who’s had a massive influence and impact.
“That’s probably the most powerful legacy of that post a year ago. He will have empowered many people to stand up for themselves, stand up for their rights and stand up for who they are as human beings.”
Townsend is at pains to point out Sterling cannot be the “be-all and end-all” in the fight against racism, and that burden must never be placed upon any single person.
But, as Manchester United look to repel the City star’s on-field obsession, it is to his immense credit he has managed to shed so much light a year on from that dark day.
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