Tuesday July 14th, 2015

It’s hard to consider the £49 million transfer of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool to Manchester City without feeling a sense of sadness. You think of the impish figure who, with a turn inside and a touch outside dumped Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart on the ground before casually rolling the ball into the net in front of the Kop the season before last, and you lament a game that can transform in 18 months a moment of such beauty into the sordid nonsense of the past month.

Certain parts of the deal are readily understandable. Jesus Navas’s move to City hasn’t really worked out, and toward the end of last season his confidence was so shot he could barely deliver the simplest cross. There’s a need to replace him–even if there’s a lingering thought that in a past time he would have been given another season to try to rediscover his form–and Sterling is a highly gifted player who can operate on the right. Moreover, he is similarly rapid and direct, proving a useful counter-balance to David Silva or Samir Nasri drifting in from the left.

There’s also a requirement to comply with the Football Association’s regulations on homegrown players. Each club submits a 25-man squad of senior players to the Premier League, of whom eight must be “homegrown.” That is, they have spent three seasons before they are 21 registered with an English or Welsh club.

The FA’s chairman, Greg Dyke, has proposed more stringent rules starting next summer: by 2020, he wants 12 of each 25-man squad to be homegrown. City falls noticeably short in this regard: last season, its eight homegrown players were Dedryck Boyata, Gael Clichy, John Guidetti, Joe Hart, Frank Lampard, James Milner, Scott Sinclair and Richard Wright. Only Clichy, Hart and Wright remain: City, in other words, had five spaces to fill. Sterling is one of them.

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Sterling’s motivation is equally clear. He is a highly gifted 20-year-old. He wants to play at the highest level and he wants to be paid as much as he can get. City gives him Champions League football and a far more realistic chance of silverware than Liverpool could. It also increased his salary from £35,000 a week to £200,000. Liverpool had offered him a much-improved deal, but it couldn’t match that. Very few clubs could.

And that is football’s new economic reality. Liverpool may have come close to winning the title the season before last, it may be the most successful English club in terms of European competition and the second most successful in terms of league championships. It may be one of the indisputable giants of the second half of the 20th century, but in modern terms it exists a tier below the top. It is not one of the superclubs. With sensible investment, an expanded stadium, new commercial deals and inspired performances in the pitch, it may yet become one, which few clubs can say, but at the moment it is not.

And that means that its choicest blooms will be plucked by those superclubs. Even if some fans still resist an acceptance of that reality, its ownership surely does not, and they must surely consider £49 million a very good price for a player who has immense potential but so far is only partly proven. Particularly one who so clearly wanted to leave–even if 20% of that fee goes to his former club, Queens Park Rangers.

Given that all parties seem to benefit–you can quibble about exactly what the “right” price would have been, but given Manuel Pellegrini let slip a month ago he saw Sterling costing £100 million (£44 million in basic fee, plus £5 million in add-ons, plus a £10 million a year salary over five years), City clearly had something like the current deal in mind from the end of last season–the bafflement is that the deal descended into such acrimony.

In the blizzard of briefing and counter-briefing, it’s very hard to know whether that was Sterling and his agent, Aidy Ward, trying to force through the move, or Liverpool trying to look as though there was nothing it could do to stop the transfer (whatever the reality, it’s not a good look for a club of Liverpool's heritage to admit it’s a grade below the elite), or perhaps both.

Whoever’s to blame, the issue reflects badly on all parties, on the Premier League and on football in general. Worse than that, it places enormous pressure on Sterling who is now either the 11th- or the 13th-most expensive player in history (depending whether you calculate in pounds or Euros) having started 77 matches in the Premier League. At an age when he’s still maturing physically and emotionally, he’s just three indifferent games from being written off as a “£49 million flop.”

Sterling may go on to become one of the greatest players in City’s and England’s history, but the manner of the transfer hasn’t helped. Once the collocation of words Sterling, City and Liverpool conjured images of genius. Now, just unseemliness.

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