OPINION | By Liverpool correspondent Cam Downes
Raheem Sterling has been widely characterised as the bad guy after taking the decision to go public with his contract impasse with Liverpool.
Sympathy mainly lies with the club and Brendan Rodgers, who stated with complete confidence on Thursday that one of football’s great institutions will not be held to ransom, and nor will they step aside and allow the most exciting 20-year-old player in English football to engineer a move with two years remaining on his contract.
‘Son, you’re going nowhere’ was the broad gist of Rodgers’ response to Sterling’s PR adventure for which the manager made it clear was done without the knowledge and approval of the club.
So far, so good. Liverpool look the reasonable party. The manager has put his foot down. But, where will such a stance ultimately leave them?
If we are to assume Sterling will not sign a new contract this summer, which is the most likely scenario given that he has already rejected a £100,000-a-week deal and his representatives have briefed he would not even sign one worth £180,000-a-week, then it is surely the beginning of the end of his Liverpool career.
Sure, Liverpool’s American owners can play hardball, as they did with Luis Suarez two years ago when he wanted to join Arsenal, and keep hold of Sterling for one more year. By which time a £40million asset becomes one worth perhaps £20m, or maybe £25m should he have an outstanding 2015-16 season.
Is that smart business? Or would Fenway Sports Group be better off cashing in, making a huge profit on someone recruited for next to nothing as a 15-year-old, and use the windfall to buy a blue-chip replacement?
Perhaps we should return to Steven Gerrard’s advice to FSG in February when asked about the club’s failure to tie Sterling and Jordan Henderson to new deals. “Those players, Sterling, Henderson, they are the ones who are going to deliver so it’s vital they get them done before it is too late,” said the skipper.
Rodgers responded to the grenade Gerrard had dropped into the owners’ laps by claiming the package offered to Sterling was “incredible” and “wonderful”.
Yes, it is. Of course it is. But that is not entirely the point.
Sterling’s wage demands are dictated by the free market. If there is a club willing to pay him £150,000-a-week, and you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a handful that are, then that, essentially, is his value.
Liverpool can legitimately claim that they are doing all they can to reward a player whose progress over the last 18 months has been as breakneck as one of the thrilling counterattacks he leads on match days. But are they? Why was Sterling not rewarded with a new contract at the end of last season?
Had he been a Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal or Manchester United player, you can bet he would have been. This time last year, Aaron Ramsey was rewarded for the season of his life with a £110,000-a-week new contract while out injured and with two months of the campaign to go.
Sterling is entitled to bide his time, sit back and let his agent take the calls from clubs willing to quadruple current £35,000-a-week agreement.
This might be regarded as another example of football’s alternative reality, of a promising young player whose achievements do not quite match the hype and who is being convinced by those around him that the grass could be greener on the other side.
Yet, Liverpool possess a unique talent, as Rodgers himself emphasised after Sterling had scored twice and laid on another for Luis Suarez in a thrilling win against Norwich City last April. “Raheem is arguably the best young player in European football moment,” claimed the manager. “If he doesn’t win PFA Young Player of the Year it is ridiculous.”
That honour eventually went to Eden Hazard. But Sterling ran the Belgian wizard close and his reputation has continued to rise in the intervening period.
Sterling’s scoring statistics this season do not offer conclusive proof of his value. The former QPR man is a diamond that still requires some polishing, but he is the jewel in Liverpool’s playing crown. He might not be worth £150,000-a-week now, but he will be in a few years’ time.
Should Sterling follow Suarez out of the exit door, it will confirm the suspicion of many that Liverpool are now a selling club and any player on the wage bill can be seduced elsewhere.
Contract negotiations are a game of poker. Liverpool know Sterling has a strong hand. They should pay what it takes to keep him.