In his final public address as England manager in July 2006, Sven Goran Eriksson issued a warning in the wake of England’s World Cup elimination.
It centred around the then 20-year-old Wayne Rooney, who had been sent off in the quarter-final against Portugal and was, predictably, following in the footsteps of Gareth Southgate, David Beckham and Phil Neville as being England’s scapegoat for failure.
“Wayne Rooney is the golden boy of English football. Don’t kill him because you will need him,” Eriksson said.
Although his prescience proved to be a little flawed, as Rooney’s international career had arguably peaked two years previously, the sentiment remains as relevant as ever 10 years on. For the knives are out after Monday night’s inexplicable 2-1 defeat to Iceland and among the chief targets is 21-year-old Raheem Sterling.
Cheap shots have been aplenty; his surname and England’s dismal performance coinciding with the fall in value of the national currency as a result of the EU referendum hasn’t helped, especially in the age of 140 characters.
But there has been bewilderment and anger in his performances in France – despite several others being as poor, if not worse – and the totally unfair denunciation of “how can he be a £50m player on £180,000 a week.”
Sterling did not choose his pricetag, the market of the Premier League dictated such, while Manchester City’s wealth enabled them to pay him such a generous salary. And yet these figures are placed upon him as personal criticism.
Raised in such a bubble, it’s no wonder it goes pop so dramatically. But then that’s what the Premier League does; it creates a false sense of reality and expectations that only the absolute best can meet.
Sterling is just 21, he has around 8-10 years where, should he avoid injuries, he can reach the level of what his talent suggests he is capable of. Yet because of his transfer fee and because of his wages, he’s treated as the finished article.
Roy Hodgson should carry some culpability given he selected him in his squad and continued to pick him despite an largely underwhelming end to the 2015/16 season. You tend to get that with young players.
But then Sterling had to go to France, because of the absolute dearth of quick, skillful, potentially game-changing English players. Given what he’s experienced over the last three weeks and the potential impact that could have on his confidence – he won’t be able to put a foot wrong from hereon in – it’s not unreasonable to fear that Sterling’s best football might have been played when he was 19.
The criticism of players being overpaid is always an odd one; because more often than not the same fans who do this take out expensive subscriptions to television networks, purchase replica shirts and pay grossly inflated ticket prices. They feed the machine that disgusts them so much.
Wilshere is old news for the media now, so they've decided to ruin another one of our only young players with a hint of ability. #Sterling— Phil Costa (@_PhilCosta) June 29, 2016
The great paradox then being that because of the cost of being a football fan, the financial investment they make means they demand greater returns; but it’s becoming increasingly unrealistic. Especially when asked of a 21-year-old at the start of his career. What’s more troubling is that it’ll only get worse.
More of the world watches the Premier League religiously, expecting it’s best to dominate at international level. The £50m transfer fee will soon become the norm. A £100,000-a week wage is already seen as on the lower scale for a leading international player.
The disconnect between fan and player only grows with each new TV deal signed. It’s not the Premier League’s fault. It’s a commercial entity which exists to make money, not grow the national game.
The FA allowed it that mandate when it ceded the majority of its power over in 1992. Rooney, Sterling and the next prodigious talent who fails and the vitriol it creates are merely products of a flawed system that has no reason to correct itself.