It’s hard to believe, but not so long ago, back before England caps, World Cups and mid-season breaks, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley were still well-kept secrets; another promising duo in the pantheon of Merseyside’s ones to watch. But how they’ve grown. Ahead of this weekend’s clash between the Red and Blue halves of Liverpool, we look back on a time before the Tipping Point.

By Leo Moynihan
Photography by Jamie Hawkesworth    

This article first appeared in Issue 3 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2012

 

In a football-centric city like Liverpool, when it comes to future stars, there are never any shocks. The days of a player quietly making his way through the ranks, excelling for the reserves – or ‘the ressies’, as they’re known up here – and then bursting onto the scene like some wonderful Christmas surprise, are long gone. New heroes are too sought after, too craved; and so, like impatient children ransacking the house to find their gifts, the locals know exactly what is under the tree.

Take Ross Barkley. At 17, he’s Everton’s latest boy wonder, believed by many to be even better than a certain Wayne Rooney was at the same age. Our taxi driver – doyens of all things football-related in any city you may visit – is an Evertonian, and is keen to offer an opinion. “We’ve all known how good this local kid is for a long time,” he says. “How many times have we seen it though, mate? How many times have we had a so-called ‘great’ player only for him to flop?” Suddenly a smile beams back onto his face. “Not this one though. He’s the real thing.”

The red half of the city is also keen for new stars to light up a new era. Local heroes such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are beginning to rake the leaves in the autumn of their careers, and the Kop is hungry for new idols.

Ross and Raheem

Ross Barkley — Liverpool 2011 by Jamie Hawkesworth

Step forward Raheem Sterling. Far from Scouse, but undoubtedly the youngster to bring hope to red hearts. He might only be sixteen, but he’s already a YouTube sensation (his five goals in a Youth Cup tie against Southend last year has over 300,000 hits) and his talent has been thoroughly dissected by many fans over many pints – and he’s yet to make his first team debut.

That’s the thing. Youngsters nowadays are almost celebrities from the moment they start banging in goals at the local park. The grapevine kicks in, and soon the hopes of thousands are on their callow shoulders. Can they handle it? Well you wouldn’t bet against these two.

Barkley made his debut in the opening game of this season. “On the Friday at training, the boss read out the team and my name is in! I’m like ‘Yes!’ I was in heaven. I didn’t worry about the pace of the game as I like it quicker, and I don’t worry about any pressure on me.”

Having not played as many games as he’d like this season, Barkley is showing the impatience of all good youngsters. And his old academy coach at Everton, Neil Dewsnip, is in no doubt about the talent the club has on their hands.

“As an 11-year-old I’ll never forget he had this ability to shoot with both feet from great distance,” he says. “In one game he scored a goal from 25 yards with his right foot that flew into the stanchion. That was special enough, but five minutes later he did the same thing from the same distance. All the coaches on the touchline that day looked at each other as if to say, ‘That’s not normal’”.

Ross and Raheem

Raheem Sterling — Liverpool 2011 by Jamie Hawkesworth

Sterling was also doing abnormal things with a football from a young age. At QPR (his local – and first – club after he moved to West London from his native Jamaica, aged five) his coach Kevin Gallen was immediately struck buy the impish skills of his charge. “One day at Millwall while playing for the under-16s, the goalkeeper hit it long, the youngster watched the ball drop over his shoulder and volleyed it first time into the top corner.”

5ft 7 today, Sterling was a diminutive kid, and whilst the small player is cherished in the modern game, there were times when he was underestimated. “I was only 3ft something as a boy,” he laughs. “I remember a game in Germany for QPR’s under-18s. I was only 14 and warming up as a sub. The crowd started laughing as I guess they were thinking, ‘What could this tiny kid do?’”

A few minutes later and they knew. “It was comedy,” recalls Gallen. “He absolutely ran rings round them. A 14-year-old street player from Harlesden in West London.”

Liverpool snapped up the winger in 2010, and he has already been included in Kenny Dalglish’s first-team squads. “At first you’re nervous walking into the dressing-room,’ says Sterling. “Soon, though, you chat to the skipper or Carra and you realise how passionate about the game and the club they are. That’s inspiring, not intimidating.”

Barkley, too, is far from timorous when it comes to playing at the highest level. He has a steely eye that says, Play me, Play me, Play me! Former Everton and England defender Martin Keown is impressed: “He’ll be one of the best players we ever see in this country.” Don’t words like that bring pressure? “No,” says Barkley. “I want to prove him right.”

Raised a blue, Barkley does admit a soft spot for a certain Steven Gerarrd (“I can’t help it, he plays in my position”) and is proud of his city’s ability to farm out some of the nation’s top players. “We’re just different from everyone else,” he says proudly. “Kids here play all the time, morning, afternoon and night. Maybe you don’t get that in other cities.”

 

This article first appeared in Issue 3 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2012

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