The rise of Raheem Sterling

City Centurion

This article was originally published on 8 August 2020, after Raheem Sterling had scored his 100th goal for Manchester City.

Raheem Sterling is thinking about how his game has changed with age.      

“I try to do less of what I did when I was younger,” he tells the CityTV cameras.

“Every time I had the ball I had to put on a show or beat someone. Now I wait for an actual moment.

“You have got to save your energy for in and around the goal.”

It is a strategy that has reaped rewards for Manchester City’s newest Centurion.

In a season in which Sterling has regularly put on a goalscoring show, he netted his 100th goal for the Club in the 2-1 win over Real Madrid, the latest personal achievement to underline his status as one of the most dangerous forwards in world football.

At the time of writing, he has scored a career-best 31 goals in 2019/20 and since the start of the 2017/18 campaign, he has scored a remarkable 79 times in 148 appearances.

For a winger and for a player whose record has regularly been scrutinised, it is an impressive return, but Sterling’s game is now, undoubtedly, all about putting the ball in the back of the net.

The Guardiola effect? Certainly, but the City boss has always deflected any praise back to a player with an insatiable appetite for improvement.

So what happened to the youngster who valued dribbling and trickery more than the goals that now define his career? spoke to those who played with or coached Sterling in his youth to find out more about the experiences which shaped him.

Charlton Athletic have just drawn 1-1 with Birmingham City in the Championship after conceding a stoppage time equaliser and a member of the backroom staff knows exactly what was required to take all three points.

“If Raheem Sterling was there, we’d have had a tap in at the back post.”

Steve Gallen chuckles to himself; his colleague unaware that the Addicks’ Director of Football is particularly well versed in the City star’s credentials.

It was Gallen who set Sterling the challenge of becoming Queens Park Rangers’ youngest ever player after working with him between the ages of 10 and 15.

A move to Liverpool meant he never did break Frank Sibley’s record of 15 years and 275 days, so instead the 46-year-old coach remembers a player who regularly made the extraordinary look ordinary during his time at the R's Centre of Excellence.

“He has still scored one of the best schoolboy goals I have seen,” Gallen explains.

“It was an unbelievable goal. I brought him on as substitute against Millwall when he was 13 and playing for the U16s.

“We were losing 2-1 and he let a goal kick go over his shoulder and bounce and he half-volleyed it from 35-yards straight into the top corner.

“I can’t remember a better one in all my years taking the youth team.

“The technique, the sheer audacity and the determination.”

"I was upsetting a lot of lads in the youth team, who had signed two-year scholarships and were substitutes. I had a few knocks on my door and they would ask, ‘why are you playing this kid ahead of me?’"

“He was 14 playing regularly in the U18s and he was as good as anyone, if not better.”

They are three traits which defined the adolescent Raheem Sterling.

Gallen first encountered him as a 10-year-old playing up an age for the R’s U12s.

He was in charge of the schoolboy section at the Centre of Excellence, but his attentions were repeatedly drawn to the U12s due to the goalscoring exploits of a lightening quick winger who was already displaying a talent that marked him out as different to his peers.

Gallen would eventually move up the coaching hierarchy and, in his own words, ‘rolled out the red carpet’ to take the young Raheem up the age groups, though quicker, stronger and more tactically astute opponents did little to curb his impact on games.

“I brought him in as an U14 when I was U16 manager and then I got the U18 job,” he recalls.

“Raheem was still 14. At the time people were talking about development pathways, but I wasn’t thinking too much into it. I just wanted the best players.

“I was upsetting a lot of lads in the youth team, who had signed two-year scholarships and were substitutes. I had a few knocks on my door and they would ask, ‘why are you playing this kid ahead of me?’

“I was playing him because he was better.

“Every challenge you set for him; it was no problem. Big lads trying to smash him – and that happened all the time – not a problem. He’d dust himself down and carry on.

“His attitude was superb. That was the main thing that stood out. Of course, he was quick, of course he was skilful, but he had that will to win. All the way back to when he was 11 years of age and he would sit on the sideline crying if he had lost.

“I loved that. Other people questioned it. I looked at it as he was so desperate to win that it was my responsibility to put him in a team that was winning.

“And we did. At our level, our U16s were very good and our U18s were very good and Raheem was part of that.

“He was 14 playing regularly in the U18s and he was as good as anyone, if not better.”

One person who didn’t realise how good he was, was Sterling himself.

Gallen remembers an extremely humble boy, popular with his team-mates and with such a love for the game that he would turn up, unprompted, to support his own age group the day after playing for the youth team.

Confidence and an appreciation of his own natural talent would arrive, however, after a match-winning performance for England U16s against Northern Ireland in the Victory Shield in November 2009.

Sterling was a year younger than his team-mates and had initially been rejected at trials, which prompted Gallen to make a bold call to the FA to inform them of their mistake.

His protege was eventually made a standby member of the squad, before Head Coach Kenny Swain promoted him and handed him his debut against the Green and White Army as a substitute for Nathan Redmond.

Sterling was involved in both goals as the Young Lions won 2-0 in a game which Gallen believes was a turning point.

“Everyone on the outside started thinking this lad’s a player and then Raheem started believing in himself.

“After he had been playing for England for a while, he came to see me and said he wanted to start playing as a number 10.

“It was the first time anyone had come and questioned my decisions, but because it was Raheem, I liked it.

“I asked him why he thought that. He said he thought he could score more goals there.

“We were playing 4-3-3 and he was playing on the left of the front three, coming in on his right foot. In his mind, he couldn’t score as many goals out there.

“I made a deal with him that we’d play a 4-3-3, but when the ball was on the right, he could come all the way across and play as a number 10 and we would get our left-back or left-midfielder to take the back post.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given his outstanding talent, Gallen doesn’t remember a great goalscorer, but then Sterling was never asked to be.

He was there to create and QPR set up to exploit his pace, trickery and one v one ability, though the coach has no doubt that had he played in his own age group, his numbers would have been unmatched.

But by 14, his peers were a thing of the past and the young Raheem was making an impact amongst real pros.

“Towards the end of his time at QPR I played him in the reserve team,” adds Charlton's Director of Football.

“It wasn’t the U23s back then, there were 30-year-olds playing and Raheem played just before his 15th birthday.

“I brought him on as sub at Aldershot. An agent rang me the next day and said, ‘why are you playing this 14-year-old before my player? You’re trying to sell him’.

“I was trying to win the game, that’s why I brought him on.

“He got kicked around a little bit, but it was an unbelievable experience for him. I have not seen it since, a 14-year-old at that level.

“If you think back to Wayne Rooney, at 16 he was a man physically. He was as strong as an ox and could cope. Raheem was tiny, but he was too bright, so they couldn’t kick him.

“We did have to be careful. I was caretaker manager for one game: West Brom away on TV. It was a week or two before his 15th birthday.

“I didn’t put him in the squad, but I brought him with me, just to give him a taste of what it was like.

“He warmed up and did everything with the team. I would have loved to have chucked him in, but I didn’t want to do that to him just in case he got hurt.”

"That game against Southend, wow! It was madness. It was the Raheem Sterling coming out party. It was like a man versus boys."

"He was a very good goalscorer, but he’s gone on to be an unbelievable goalscorer and that has taken him to the next level."

Sterling had already trained with the first team by this point, arranged by Gallen when Paulo Sousa was in charge at Loftus Road and the session ended in applause for how well the 14-year-old had equipped himself.

It is just one of hundreds of memories his former coach recalls fondly, but he is drawn back to the scene of that incredible goal against Millwall and a moment which confirmed Sterling had the tools to make it as a professional.

“He went in heavy on Millwall’s captain, but won the ball. The 16-year-old got up and said, ‘what are you doing I’ve got a long career ahead of me you know’.

“Raheem just looked at me and smiled. At that stage you didn’t know he was going to end up playing for England, nobody knows that. I never believe it when people tell me they know.

“I did know that the right-back wasn’t going to have a career, whereas Raheem had the will to go a long way for sure.”

By the time he was 15, Sterling was ready for the next step and QPR’s loss was Liverpool’s gain as they edged out Fulham in the battle for his signature.

It took a significant fee to prise him away and that, combined with a now infamous appearance on Soccer AM’s Skill School, meant his reputation preceded him when he arrived on Merseyside in February 2010.

But little changed; the exceptional was still very much the norm.

A five-goal haul in a 9-0 FA Youth Cup win over Southend United just 12 months after his arrival evidenced that Sterling was the jewel in the crown of the academy on Merseyside as he had been in West London.

“That game against Southend, wow! It was madness,” says former team-mate Adam Morgan, who was also on the scoresheet that day.

“It was the Raheem Sterling coming out party. It was like a man versus boys. Of course, they are a lower level academy, but he was walking past people.

“He showed the whole academy and everyone watching that he was too good and needed to be moved up.”

The team-mates Sterling was too good for include Wolves captain Conor Coady (two years older), and Sevilla winger and Spanish international, Suso (one year older).

Morgan was also in the age group above and particularly well placed to comment on the goalscoring prowess of Sterling the youth team scholar.

Now at Chelmsford City in the National League South, the 26-year-old Scouser had a fearsome reputation at youth level, with former City and Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler commenting: ‘as a finisher he is probably one of the best I've seen for a long, long time.'

In the one season in which the pair played together consistently, Morgan hit the back of the net 21 times in 20 games, whilst the man who often provided the assist managed 13 goals in 24 appearances.

However, it was Sterling who ran the show in the Reds' U18s.

“He came in and set the world alight from the first minute,” adds Morgan.

“He was the best player in the team, without a doubt. If you wanted to get the ball to anyone, it was Raheem and he would do the rest. He was our danger man.

“He had raw pace, so he’d get five chances a game and score two, but you could tell he wasn’t a killer in front of goal. He’d score a lot of goals but could have scored double with the chances he created for himself.

“He was most effective on the left of a front three. A lot of the time he would be outside the box waiting to get the ball and dribble. He would cut inside and either cross or bend one into the far corner. He did that all the time.

“But goalscoring was always going to come. He knew he could be the best. He just needed to work on parts of his game.

“He was a very good goalscorer, but he’s gone on to be an unbelievable goalscorer and that has taken him to the next level.

“He was always keen to learn that. He was always doing extra shooting after training. I worked with him over a five-year period, so I’ve seen him progress. I can see it in games now.

“It doesn’t come by luck. It comes by working hard.”

"I thought this guy looks like a kid, but he got the ball and he absolutely blitzed every one of us."

"He was doing things at 16 and 17 that established pros would be doing."

That worth ethic is something Pep Guardiola singled out after City's top scorer’s most recent hat-trick against Brighton and Hove Albion.

Competitive, self-confident and aggressive were the words he chose to describe the player who has hit new heights under the Catalan’s tutelage.

Sterling has summarised his approach in one word.


“I’m obsessed with football, obsessed with scoring goals, obsessed with recovering quicker and obsessed with improving myself,” he said in December 2019.

Whilst he acknowledged that may not always have been the case, Morgan remembers a player whose work ethic complemented his natural talent.

“He was just born with a certain level and he has worked so hard to go to the next level.

“He was a keen learner. He must have known in his own head that he had everything else and that scoring goals would take him to the next level.

“He must have worked on it and it has paid dividends for him. He won’t want to settle. Next season he will want to get 40 goals.

“As an athlete you never want to settle. You are always in competition to beat your personal best. His self-worth will make him want to improve.

“He has just turned 25, if he looks after himself, he could play for another 10 years. He might not hit his peak until he's 28.

“In my opinion, over the next five years, you are going to see an even better Raheem Sterling.”

You sense Morgan could speak at length about what makes his former team-mate special.

After all, Sterling’s is a tale of rampant excellence and the non-league player has witnessed part of the journey at close quarters.

But what is most striking about his recollections of the period in which Sterling was establishing himself as a star of the future, is that the effusive praise for his footballing ability goes hand in hand with the compliments about his character.

The two are still in touch, with Morgan giving his former colleague the courtesy of letting him know he would be doing this interview and he received a warm response.

“I knew he wouldn’t mind, but it was just out of respect for him. He was fine with it and he told me he still tells people about my finishing.

“A lot of people would perceive Raheem Sterling to be different to what he is actually like.

“My dad is a cab driver and he took one of Raheem’s mates to his house. Raheem came out to pay and ended up talking to my dad for 45 minutes. He didn’t need to do that.

“He is the most humble person. He would be the same with every single person, but when he went on the pitch, he would be the star.”

It was the star shaved into the side of the head which first caught Ryan McLaughlin’s eye.

He was the right-back for Northern Ireland U16s wondering who the diminutive substitute with the striking haircut was in the Victory Shield match Steve Gallen believes did so much to enhance Sterling’s self-belief.

“I thought this guy looks like a kid, but he got the ball and he absolutely blitzed every one of us,” says McLaughlin.

“It ended up being 2-0 and all anyone could talk about after was him.”

Within two years they were team-mates, after McLaughlin joined Liverpool from Glenavon at the age of 16 and by then Sterling’s star was shining even brighter.

“He was the king of the academy when I arrived. Everyone knew,” adds the 25-year-old, who spent the 2019/20 season with League One outfit Rochdale.

“There were a lot of players at Liverpool who had amazing ability. With Raheem it was different. He had the most ability out of anyone, but he was so smart off the ball as well.

“He had been doing things for years that we were being taught by coaches.

“Some of the things he would do on the pitch you wouldn’t do when you were younger because you were quite immature to the game, but he was doing things at 16 and 17 that established pros would be doing.”

As a right-back, it was McLaughlin’s job to stop Sterling in training, something which gave him an appreciation for the intricacies of his game.

Marking him could be a punishing experience, with one v one situations something best avoided against a player who could exhaust you both physically and mentally.

“He was relentless in training,” McLaughlin explains.

"He always took training like games. He was probably the hardest working player in our team. Sometimes it was impossible to even try and take the ball off him.

“He had everything as a winger. His runs in behind were the main thing. Every defender hates getting dragged in facing your own goal running backwards.

“In five-a-side it wasn’t as bad because he had less space to run into, but if it was an 11-a-side game you knew you had to be thinking constantly because he would be running in behind for fun and you couldn’t catch him.

“He just used to do it all the time, which meant he had a lot of chances in a game. He wasn’t a natural finisher, but he was a very good goalscorer.”

Sterling could do things that McLaughlin wasn’t encountering against wingers of a similar age and his tireless work-rate meant he was thorn in the side as much defensively as he was going forward.

But the defender took consolation from the fact that the 17-year-old was already proving a menace for seasoned professionals.

“We played Everton U23s at Goodison Park. They had first team players coming back from injury and those who hadn’t played at the weekend.

“We were all kids and they had a class team out, with Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley, Leon Osman, James McFadden, Jack Rodwell and Victor Anichebe.

“Raheem was playing against Coleman and he absolutely tortured him all game. Seamus was coming back from injury, but he was an established first team player.

“He was on the opposite side to me, because I was playing right-back and he was left wing. I remember thinking in the game, if he’s doing this against them, imagine what he is going to do in the future when he is playing week in week out.

“I went up [to train with the first team] one time and I saw Raheem, he must have just turned 17, and he tortured Paul Konchesky, who had just signed for Liverpool.

“I remember thinking, I wonder what they [first team players] think now. I thought he would have stayed up there full-time after. He didn’t, though.

“I know he made his debut at 17, but I thought he could have gone up even earlier. I think he made his debut at the end of that season under Kenny Dalglish.

“I went on pre-season tour with him that summer. It was his first pre-season and he was one of the best players day in day out in training.”

"He’d be livid if he lost. Even in training, he would be absolutely livid."

"Rodolfo treated him like the rest of us. He didn’t make him feel any more special. He developed him brilliantly. They seem like the perfect partnership."

McLaughlin credits Rodolfo Borrell for enabling Sterling to make a seamless transition to Liverpool’s senior squad.

Prior to his arrival at City, Guardiola’s assistant coach spent five years in the Reds’ academy, initially overseeing the U18s, before taking charge of the U23s and eventually becoming Academy Technical Director.

He demanded exceptionally high standards, which McLaughlin feels ensured his young players were suitably prepared when they received the call to join the first team at Melwood.

“Rodolfo was an unbelievable coach. He wanted the environment to be high quality. The way we trained was relentless.

“He was very good with Raheem. It was a close relationship.

“He had this reputation for having worked with Messi and Bojan at Barcelona when they were young stars. I am sure he saw a lot of them in Raheem and he was able to handle him perfectly.

“Obviously, there was a lot of expectation on him, but Rodolfo treated him like the rest of us. He didn’t make him feel any more special.

“He developed him brilliantly. They seem like the perfect partnership.”

Sterling was no longer a secret at this stage and he was often a topic of conversation when McLaughlin returned to Northern Ireland over the summer and was quizzed by his friends as to what one of football’s most promising talents was like in person.

The full-back never had a bad word to say, but for all Sterling was a popular team-mate, the competitive streak which Gallen witnessed in him as an 11-year-old was still very much evident.

“He’d be livid if he lost. Even in training, he would be absolutely livid,” McLaughlin recalls with a laugh.

“We got beat by Ajax in the semi-final of the youth Champions League. He was good that day, but we made a lot of individual mistakes and he was absolutely fuming because, at the end of the day, he was the best player in the tournament and he didn’t want to be in a team that got beat by that amount.

“He wouldn’t take getting beat in anything. We would play table tennis before and after training and he was actually very good – I didn't beat him that much – but even in those type of things he wouldn’t take it.

“If you did beat him, he would want to play again and beat you. He was relentless about winning.

“All top players have that, being a sore loser. That is the best way to be. There is no such thing as a good loser. No manager wants that.”

It was American high school basketball coach Tim Notke who coined a phrase which has become a popular part of sporting vernacular.

‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’

The rise of Raheem Sterling has been about both; a supremely gifted player with a burning desire to get better.

It is what set him apart from his earliest days at QPR and it is what has propelled him to win every honour in English football on his way to scoring 100 goals for Manchester City.

It has been quite the journey, but one, it seems, he was destined to make.

“He was always going to be a star,” concludes Morgan.

“He just had this presence about him that he was the main man. He didn’t portray that himself. I just had that feeling when I was around him, that this kid is the real deal.

“He is showing everyone in the world that now.”