Raheem Sterling’s quick ascension into the first team this season brought with it many legitimate concerns as to his maturity level, largely framed around whether getting so much playing time was good for his development and if it might lead to a bright young star burning out too quickly.
What was discussed less was his maturity on a psychological level, and to what degree he was equipped to deal with the pressures of the senior squad, both on and off the pitch. Sterling is literally still a teenager, which comes with its own set of fun issues to deal with; the player getting caught on tape making snarky comments towards Brendan Rodgers during a training session was an especially awkward moment during the club's summer tour. When contract negotiations did not seem to happen quickly enough, the stereotype of the fresh-faced academy graduate being handed his first professional contract and more money than he knew what to do with sprung to mind, and with that sudden windfall of cash and fame there was the unavoidable possibility that it might be too much, too soon.
In an interview with the club’s official website, Sterling spoke of the way his mother keeps him grounded by requiring he help out at home, but beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings one might have about a kid talking about the importance of his mom in his life, Sterling expressed a few realisations that some of his colleagues a few years older than him could benefit from understanding.
Declaring that "me and Twitter are finished" and giving up other social media distractions, Sterling plans on turning his attentions to charity work by personally providing funding for two primary schools in Jamaica, where Sterling lived until he was five. "Everyone is living okay but not everyone has it easy," he said. "Their mums and dads have to work hard for it."
Although numerous footballers do charity work and many even found their own charitable foundations, it’s a rare eighteen-year-old who steps up to do work of this nature nor has the self-awareness to acknowledge their own position of privilege in the world.
There’s a larger discussion to be had as to what role – and even responsibility – the club has in developing the whole player, not just his skills and reading of the game. Sterling has spoken in the past about how finding football gave him structure and kept him out of trouble at school as a child, but it’s in any club’s best interests to continue mentoring its academy products or other young signings in things that impact their lives well beyond the chalk lines of the training pitch. Football clubs are not designed to be bastions of altruism, but at the end of the day youth recruits are more likely to work out for the club if they’re not screw-ups and don’t have less than savoury off-pitch distractions occupying their time.
Sterling will continue to adjust to the new role handed to him this season, and at eighteen years old he’s far from the finished product by any measurement. What’s encouraging is the seriousness with which he seems to be approaching his game and, if this is symptomatic of a larger shift in working with those coming up through the youth ranks, it may be a sign that the club are developing their own players of character in addition to the ones Brendan Rodgers hopes to bring in during the next transfer window.