The images of Raheem Sterling taking selfies with Liverpool fans, signing autographs and giving away his shirt to them, at the end of the FA Community Shield in August spoke volumes.
It followed Manchester City’s victory on penalties after a 1-1 draw, through his first goal in 10 meetings against the club he left in acrimonious circumstances four years ago – and whose supporters have since been largely unforgiving.
Those pictured are among the many who perhaps now have a different opinion of Sterling to the one that has often seen him vilified at Anfield following the £49 million move.
Impressive, inspirational displays for City and England have propelled the forward into Ballon d’Or reckoning as one of the world’s best players, while he has become a global sporting icon for his impassioned stance against racism.
But, with a shake of his head, Sterling told Sport360 exclusively: “I’m no hero. Nah. It’s an amazing moment for me, for football, but I just need to keep that humbleness, keep going.
“It’s always nice to hear good things from people, but also like in the past when you hear the bad.
“When you get to a place when you are maturing, then you understand not to take everything what everyone says to heart and you just have to continue going in the same way you have over the past couple of years. Stay on the same path, keep that humbleness and keep going onwards.”
Raheem Sterling went to the Liverpool fans after City's Community Shield victory— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) August 5, 2019
Lovely moments for these young fans👏 pic.twitter.com/nywSaeMNUl
Sterling, 24, is determined not to lose focus. Nor be distracted by the gushing plaudits that have come his way for affecting change on and off the field.
When he returns to Liverpool on Sunday he will be prepared for the toughest of tests against the European champions, who lead the Premier League holders by six points after an unbeaten start.
City last triumphed at Anfield in 2003, although a missed penalty from Riyad Mahrez cost them in a goalless draw last season. A 14-match winning run clawed back a seven-point deficit to pip Liverpool on the final day and secured back-to-back titles.
“At first it was hard going back,” added Sterling as he recollected his Merseyside memories.
“It was weird at first to see yourself in a different shirt and, against a club that’s done so much for you, it’s also emotional.
“But now I have matured past that and feel I have had some good games against them.
“Now I’ve got past that stage. It’s gone, was a little thing, but I’m now fully focused and fully ready. It’s time to go there and produce.
“I see this as a game where you need to simply focus on your individual performances first, and the collective performances, and the rest will take care of itself.
“I think we have had difficult times there as a team, but last season we went there and could have got the win at the end [with the penalty].
“We just need to go there, play confidently, know that they are a good team, but we are also a good team and we will give it everything.
“For sure they are pushing us to do better. You don’t just want to breeze the league.
“Of course you want to win it, but at the same time, last season was a better feeling to win the title than the season before.
“Purely because of the pressures we were under, the circumstances of how we won it. We knew we had to win every game and that gives you the adrenaline, everything.
“Again, I think this is the same as last season. It’s a long season and we are prepared for the fight – and it’s going to be a good one.
“When we operate to our best as a team, attacking and defensively, then we are frightening. But at the same time the teams in this league, any of them can affect you as we have seen this season. That’s why it’s such a hard league. We need to be fully focused and just try to win the games.”
Sterling believes consistency will also be key to how his personal ambitions unfold.
Having won the coveted Golden Boy award in 2014 as Europe’s best Under-21 player while at Liverpool, he is now the goal-den boy at City.
With 25 goals and 18 assists last season, he was named FWA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year as City also lifted the League Cup and FA Cup to clinch a domestic Treble.
Sterling has 18 goals in this one – four in England colours – and has made the Ballon d’Or 30-man shortlist for the first time.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “It’s not the last time I’m looking to be nominated you know. But to work in silence, keep going, keep trying to win trophies and the rest will take care of itself.
“Coming off the back of two Premier League titles and the battles, I think that gives anybody confidence and belief.
“For sure I want my name up there. Whatever age group I’ve been at, Under-15s, 16s, 17s and 18s, I’ve been one of the best players, so it’s no different now being in the first team.
“That’s everyone’s dream, but you have to keep working hard and keep trying to win trophies for your team because that’s what gets you there. You have to keep producing week in, week out. It’s not good to perform just for six months, but you have to do it for the whole calendar year.
“I’m in a good place mentally and I just need to stay focused, be humble and keep working. The consistency is a key part of all this to make sure I keep on top of things.
“Each season I just want to improve and I think that improvement is to do it on a consistent basis for longer periods of time.”
He added: “I’d say one difference [from when I won the Golden Boy] is just to believe in myself. Also at Liverpool when I was on the ball, I’d say I was always going down the line, then crossing the ball and then doing a little trick.
“Now it’s trying to do pick those moments on a regular basis where I try to affect the game for my team. Like scoring goals yes.
“I think I was a bit raw there [at Liverpool] and it’s like anything, it was my first time as a professional and you learn things and you adapt to things. That’s what I’ve been trying to do over the past few years. Goals for sure make a big difference.
“I don’t want to be having bad games, but if you can chip in and contribute with goals then you are an important player.
“You can have a bad game, but then score the winner and you’ve had a very good game after that. That’s something I have learnt. I’ve watched games in the past and seen a player have a very bad game and then he’s scored the winner. The next day he’s the hero.”
Sterling has become one of those, albeit a humble hero.
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