Sterling must listen to body or risk ending up like Owen

Raheem Sterling, a young man with the world at his feet, should right now feel on top of the world.

He is 19. He showed at the World Cup in Brazil just what a talent he can be. For an hour, his speed and his trickery bamboozled Italy, at least until the steamy jungle heat of Manaus turned his legs to cramp.

No matter that England failed him, and flopped out of the tournament at the group stage. He left his imprint. It is said that Real Madrid are waiting for him to gain experience before possibly making him one of its Galacticos.

However, time waits for no man, not even a potential superstar in the making.

This weekend, Sterling is as much a polemic as he is a player.

His return to Liverpool followed back page headlines about the youth who was dropped to the bench after telling the England team manager that he felt "tired".

That turned into another club-versus-country debate about the burnout of young players.

There were three in this bed: Roy Hodgson, the national team manager, Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager. And the press. Sterling became almost the silent witness to his own situation.

His diary is full. If all he wants to do is play football and grow into his potential, the next four days are a dream opportunity to show what he can do.

This lunchtime he returns "home" to play against Queens Park Rangers, the first club to spot his potential and enroll him in its academy as a child.

On Wednesday, fitness permitting, he should experience one of the most electrifying nights in sport, Liverpool versus Real Madrid at Anfield.

Yes, the Madrid which might become his destiny.

Yes, Anfield. Long before Sterling was born, this used to be one of the places to feel the essence of continental competition. Never mind the Champions League theme tune, players down in the dressing rooms feel the stadium vibrate as 44,000 Liverpudlians stand together and sing their hymn You'll Never Walk Alone.

It is a huge night for any player, be he Cristiano Ronaldo in white or Raheem Sterling in red.

But, I get ahead of myself. First there is the matter of QPR, the bottom team in the Premiership. QPR, whose manager Harry Redknapp, now 67, is fighting for his job at the opposite end of the age spectrum to Sterling.

I put the word home in inverted commas.

Sterling was in fact born in Jamaica, and raised there by his grandmother until he was five. He joined his mother in west London, and discovered his football soon afterwards. Certainly by the age of nine, QPR had him earmarked as a future player.

The skills were blindingly obvious. A kid who moved faster with the ball under his spell than other boys trying to chase him. A wayward lad who got into a few scrapes outside of the Rangers' academy, and fathered a daughter in his mid teens.

By then, for a down-payment of £60,000 (S$123,000), he was pledged to Liverpool, though there are of course add-ons probably running into a seven-figure sum once Sterling hits all the targets set up in that contract.

But will he?

He was a full-blown Red, a Liverpool first-team player at 17, nudging between Jack Robinson of olden times and Michael Owen as the youngest starter on an Anfield debut.

He eclipsed Owen as an England national team player as well, although both Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney were even more precocious than Sterling as England players.

That said, the comparison to Owen is the one that seems most relevant here.

Owen is now a broadcaster on British TV, and he said during the week that he had never heard a player say that he felt too tired to play two games in a week.

But Owen knows about playing too much, too soon.

He spent years denying, to himself as much as anyone else, that his seemingly interminable strains, particularly hamstrings, had anything to do with his fast rise through the ranks.

In retirement, he sees it differently. He was rapid, so prolific, that every team that could call on his services did so. The Liverpool schools, the local area representative team, Liverpool FC, England, World Cup, Euros.

Two, three times a week. No problem, he was young, he had energy and desire. And the uncanny knack of popping up in space in the goal-mouth where nobody else sensed it existed.

But he was also still growing, physically and mentally. That's where the backlash comes. Nature will not be rushed, as any trainer of young persons should know.

So while Owen paid for being a precocious boy in a man's game, who watches out now for Sterling?

Apart from the fact that Rodgers and Hodgson appear to be talking to the media rather than to each other, a dichotomy grows.

Sterling is paid for by his club. Like other more experienced men, including his club mate Daniel Sturridge and Chelsea's Diego Costa, he answers the call on national duty when fit.

Costa adopted Spanish citizenship to play a World Cup in the country of his birth, Brazil.

But Costa's Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho complains that Spain exacerbated his star's hamstring problems by playing him twice last week. The reality is that Costa damaged the sinew late last season while pursuing titles with Atletico Madrid.

Atletico knew the risk. Spain knew it. Chelsea knew it while paying millions to buy him.

His liverpool form in the closing week of last season was sharper than Sturridge or Luis Suarez.

His magnificent hour in Manaus ran his legs to cramp. The calls on him, and the bickering between managers who follow different patterns of recovery time between games, result from fixture congestion.

Fifa, Uefa and the clubs all want their pound of flesh in terms of profit.

And it becomes a polemic when a youth utters the word tired? Everyone from the managers to TV studio couch experts have opinions - but Raheem Sterling alone knows what he is feeling.

He should listen to his body. It has to carry him through a career.

Time to talk on the pitch

Sterling became almost the silent witness to his own situation. His diary is full. If all he wants to do is play football, the next four days are a dream opportunity.

This article was first published on Oct 19, 2014.
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