“Everything happens for a reason, you know?” Raheem Sterling pondered, as he spoke to FourFourTwo in late March. “This summer, in my home town, I have a good feeling.”
When I talked to the Manchester City wide man for FFT’s Euro 2020 preview magazine, it was clear he meant those words.
For the previous few moments, he’d spoken surprisingly candidly about his views on his personal performances at the 2018 World Cup.
What started as a general question about how he assessed his displays at his three previous tournaments with England, quickly turned into Sterling being openly self-critical about 2018.
“That one was the hardest to take,” he said. “I had big expectations of myself. I thought I could have brought a lot more to the team.”
His honesty was refreshing, and his words were surprising. He’d been a regular in a team that reached the semi finals in Russia, and many people thought he’d actually played pretty well.
It became clear, though, that there was one reason in particular why he wasn’t happy with himself at the World Cup. He didn’t score. “That’s what I judge my performances on,” he said. “I’m there to score goals, so I wasn’t happy that I didn’t.”
Until yesterday, Sterling had played 12 matches at major tournaments without scoring for England, and it was obvious from that interview in March that it was bugging him.
The wait was made all the more frustrating by the fact he almost scored the goal of his life just three minutes into his tournament debut in 2014, when his 30-yard World Cup effort against Italy veered into the side-netting. Believing the ball had gone in, the whole of England rose to their feet to celebrate a goal that never was.
Sterling’s career has been stellar, but has not always had a plethora of stand-out moments in the biggest of matches. He felt robbed of one in 2019, when he bagged a last-minute goal in a Champions League quarter final against Spurs, to seemingly complete a hat-trick, only for it to be ruled out by VAR.
In 2020, he might have had one late on against Lyon in Lisbon, only to somehow turn the ball over the bar in agonising fashion.
But when he spoke in March, he genuinely believed his luck would turn at Euro 2020. Given his contributions for club and country in recent years - he’s netted more than 150 career goals - he was due a big moment. He felt it was destined to come at Wembley, just a quarter of a mile from where he went to school as a youngster.
Against Croatia, it arrived. The emotion he displayed after scoring the winner in England’s opening match felt like the release of all of his frustrations - the frustrations of previous tournaments with the Three Lions, and the frustrations of a difficult season with Manchester City.
It also felt like a pivotal moment for Sterling. Many fans hadn’t wanted him to start England’s opening game of the Euros - in a BBC poll, Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho were both voted into the line-up ahead of him. If things hadn’t gone well for him against Croatia, criticism might well have come his way.
It certainly did during Euro 2016 - I first interviewed him not long after that tournament, and it was obvious then that the criticism had hurt him. Be in no doubt how desperate he’s always been to do well for England.
Be in no doubt also that, when on form, he offers England something that even Grealish cannot.
The Aston Villa star is undoubtedly highly talented, and may yet have a big role to play at Euro 2020. But his seven appearances for England so far have offered two assists, and no goals.
Those numbers were never compelling enough to justify reshaping the attack and removing Sterling, whose previous 16 games for England had delivered 12 goals and 10 assists. Harry Kane can’t be expected to produce all of the goals on his own. Ultimately, football is a numbers game.
The only question was whether the Raheem Sterling that plays at major tournaments, whether the Raheem Sterling that had a difficult end to the 2020-21 season, was still the same Raheem Sterling who bagged those 12 goals and 10 assists. The evidence of the Croatia game was yes.
Not only did he score the decisive goal, but he ran in behind in a way that Grealish generally doesn’t, because it’s not the Villa man’s game. To start without Sterling or Marcus Rashford would have left England playing in front of a Croatian defence that could have sat in and made themselves difficult to break down.
Kane’s penchant to drop deep is less effective, and can even become problematic, when he’s not playing alongside a Sterling, a Rashford, a Son Heung-Min or a Gareth Bale.
Arguably England’s finest performance in recent years began when Kane dropped deep and Sterling ran in behind for the first of his two goals in a 3-2 win over Spain in Seville in 2018. That just wouldn’t have happened with Grealish.
In some ways, Sterling’s lack of match action in the closing stages of the season - he wasn’t in City’s first choice XI until the Champions League final - may even have proved advantageous.
Here was a player with a point to prove, and a player who was at least a little fresher than he could have been - particularly when you consider that City’s fixture list involved just one free midweek between September and May.
He’s a player who’s learned from his previous tournament experiences, too - admitting to FFT in March that he spent too much time on his own during the 2018 World Cup.
“It’s something I’ve always done from when I was young,” he said. “I like my space, so the first thing for me to do is just go up to my room. But after a while that gets a bit boring, a bit tough. You bring it on yourself.
"Don’t be stuck in a room, all by yourself, thinking. I need to be more social. Creating that bond with the rest of your team-mates is the most important thing at a tournament.”
Against Croatia, as even substitutes like Rashford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin raced on to the pitch to celebrate with him, that bond was clear. Sterling has often given the impression of being a confidence player - beginning a tournament with a match-winning goal was as big a confidence boost as he could ever wish for.
Sterling has always believed that Euro 2020 was his destiny, his moment to shine on the biggest stage of all. Against Croatia, the boy from Brent did just that.
“I’m there to score goals,” he told FFT back in March. If he can add some more before the tournament is out, England could be in for a pretty good summer.
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