Raheem Sterling: Liverpool winger bids to shed bad boy image

By Natalie PirksBBC sports correspondent
Sterling on Liverpool, Rodgers, and England

Raheem Sterling is early - 45 minutes early. In my 14 years in sports journalism, this is unprecedented for a Premier League footballer.

It's the first sign, of many, that the team around one of England's most exciting young talents is working hard to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground.

He arrives at his favourite Italian restaurant in Liverpool accompanied by his agent and a small team filming him as part of a documentary.

He's affable but shy and in many ways a typical teenager - sipping on a cola, constantly texting.

It's only when the 19-year-old takes off his jacket for lunch that I notice his entire left arm is covered, from shoulder to wrist, in tattoos.

At the top is the face and name of his daughter, Melody Rose - "the best thing that's ever happened" to him. She was born in 2012 after a brief relationship and is his only child, despite "silly online rumours" to the contrary.

If you search his name on the internet, one of the first suggestions is 'Raheem Sterling four kids'. This, he says, is the public's biggest misconception of him.

He quips that he actually "has eight", but then adds: "It made people think badly of me, that I'm not really grounded, that I'm out and about doing loads of madness."

It's not the only thing contributing to a bad boy reputation. In May 2013, he had a common assault charge against him dropped after a witness failed to turn up to court.

And in September last year, he was found not guilty of assault against a former girlfriend. He knows he's "made mistakes" in the past but says he's young and is using those experiences to help him grow up and move on.

Back to those tattoos. On the inside of his biceps are the words 'Thank you mama for the nine months you carried me, through all the pain and suffering'.

It's clear his mother, Nadine - who he jokes "thinks she's Jose Mourinho" - is a constant presence and strength in his life.

Sterling says: "She's a big part of my life - she tries to have too much of a say sometimes! I try to listen to her, because most of what she says is right.

"My mum thinks she knows her football. She'll certainly tell me when I'm not doing something right. At other times she'll say I'm not listening to her. There's been a few clashes with her."

She left Maverley, Jamaica, for England when he was aged five and once she had found work, moved Raheem and his three siblings to the tough St Raphael's estate in the shadow of Wembley.

Sterling was removed from mainstream primary school because of behavioural problems and spent three years at Vernon House special school, where the youngster was told by a teacher: "If you carry on the way you're going, by the time you're 17 you'll either be in prison or playing for England."

A prophetic statement, made because it was clear that, although he could be disruptive, he was a talented footballer.

Sterling joined QPR at the age of 11, where he was quickly nicknamed 'Raheem Park Rangers' by his peers. With several big teams interested in him, he chose Liverpool when he was 15.

Current England boss Roy Hodgson gave Sterling his first game in a Liverpool shirt as a 15-year-old in a friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach in 2010, before Kenny Dalglish handed him his senior debut against Wigan in March 2012, aged 17.

The slight, diminutive boy who was repeatedly knocked off the ball by older players is still the same height - just 5ft 7in - but has "bulked up a bit" and Hodgson has made it clear that Sterling is in his World Cup thoughts.

"He has seen me play and I think he likes the way I play. I'm grateful he's the manager of England," Sterling says.

"He gives me good motivation to do well. He puts his arm around me and gives me little things I can do better at."

Raheem Sterling and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers
Raheem Sterling says Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has helped him "massively" on and off the pitch

Sterling's form for Liverpool since Christmas has been electrifying. He has scored seven goals this season and set up many more. He cites Brendan Rodgers as a huge influence.

"He's helped me massively," Sterling explains. "Not only with my footballing game but if I need someone to talk to off the field he's there for me. I've got to really give credit to him and thank him a lot."

But while Liverpool's resurgence is a source of pride and excitement in the red half of the city, the players have clearly been briefed not to get carried away. Manager Rodgers has played down his side's title chances and his charges have followed suit.

"I don't want to be the one that says Liverpool can go on and win the league," Sterling says. "But there's a real belief and togetherness in the squad, we're all working for each other. We all know what the dream is at the end of it."

And the other dream lies in Brazil. He has Wembley tube station and the stadium tattooed on his crowded arm. They are a reminder of his past and what he describes now as "the dream that's becoming a reality", following a man-of-the-match display in the friendly win over Denmark on 5 March.

Passing his old haunts on the team coach to that game, he says had to pinch himself: "I was looking at the sights thinking: 'I used to play there a couple of years back and now I'm on the coach with the England team.'"

Nicknamed 'Heemio' by his mates for his Brazilian-style flicks and tricks, going to Rio would mean everything.

"Growing up you watch players like Ronaldinho playing in World Cups, doing the business and you idolise these people," he says.

"To then get called up by England for a World Cup? I don't think there'd be a greater feeling, knowing you could help make the nation proud."

With a future this bright, it's handy he has room on his other arm for all the tattoos that will surely follow.

The full interview with Raheem Sterling appeared on BBC One's Football Focus on Saturday, 29 March, at 12:00 GMT.

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