From Brent to Brazil
13:00 08 June 2014
Raheem Sterling has made rapid rise to World Cup level
He’s renowned for his speed – and it’s fair to say England winger Raheem Sterling has always been a player ahead of schedule.
Sterling featured in QPR’s reserve team at the age of just 14, became the second youngest player to represent Liverpool in the club’s history, and made his full England debut before he turned 18.
And his meteoric rise began even earlier, when he outclassed older players to such an extent that the man who was to play a key role in Sterling’s development had no idea just how youthful his young prodigy actually was.
Paul Lawrence, the football coach at Copland Community School in Wembley – just around the corner from the national stadium – recalls how Sterling’s sister Lakima, a student at the school, first brought the future England star to his attention.
“She mentioned a few times that her brother was a really good player,” said Lawrence. “I asked her to bring him in when we had a training session for the Year sevens and eights.
“He ran rings around them, scored two goals and made loads of chances. I was so impressed with what I saw and asked her to make sure he came to our school.
“When the following September came around, I didn’t see him and I went and asked his sister where he was. She explained he wasn’t old enough to come to our school yet – I hadn’t realised he was two years younger than the boys he’d been playing against.
“He eventually came along next year. Straight away I put him into the Year seven team – and also the Year eight team, who won the Brent Cup, with Raheem scoring a hat-trick and making another two goals.
“He was so small for his age – and even now I think people tend to worry about him getting knocks and injuries, but he’s always had the talent to get out of bad tackles with his pace and change of direction.
“In every match, without fail, people would try and intimidate him, wind him up and foul him – and because he was so good they were prepared to sacrifice themselves just to put him out of the game.”
Sterling was soon selected to represent his borough at the London Youth Games in 2009 and captained Brent to the gold medal in the boys’ football tournament.
By then, he was also on the books at QPR, regularly ripping the heart out of defences at Under-18 level and broke into the reserve team before his 15th birthday.
Sterling’s growing reputation alerted several of English football’s big guns and it was Liverpool who won the race for his signature, paying an initial £500,000 to take the teenager to Anfield a few months later.
“We spoke about it a few times and obviously I was pleased with the fact he was at QPR,” added Lawrence. “But I didn’t think he would get the same opportunities and guidance by staying there.
“There was interest from a few other clubs but nothing concrete, whereas Liverpool made it clear that they wanted him as a player rather than just for his potential.
“If that move hadn’t happened, who knows whether he’d even be in the first team at QPR now? Being in that environment with Liverpool, where you’re trying to win the league, made a world of difference.”
Having made his senior debut for the Reds in March 2012, Sterling was soon drafted into the England squad and Lawrence, along with a number of Brent students, made the short trip to Wembley to watch his protégé in action.
And the coach has no doubts about the positive effect that Sterling’s startling progress has had on other aspiring young footballers in north-west London.
“Raheem’s been back to the school quite a few times since he left and he sees other ex-students in the area, just doing things that young people do like going shopping or out for a meal,” said Lawrence.
“He doesn’t come back and act like he’s living a different life. Loads of students from different schools have been to see him play – and some of them don’t usually play or even watch football.
“Young players around the area know they’re in the same position as he was a few years ago and feel they’ve got a chance to make something of their lives because they’ve seen what he’s done.”