Manchester City’s £49m purchase of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling has unleashed a tidal wave of excited opinion across the British football media and beyond. Whether it is more apt to build a couple of new hospitals or his fee is obscene and ruinous, is open to question, but be reassured that the democratic notion of free speech to all (even Phil Thompson) has been unleashed upon us like a hurricane wave hitting the low-lying sands of Formby.
Variously voted Europe’s Golden Boy (in the slipstream of the likes of Mario Balotelli, Lionel Messi and new team mate Sergio Aguero), called Liverpool’s most valuable and talented player, the “best young player in Europe” (an earlier incarnation of Brendan Rodgers) and held up as England’s next great hope, he suddenly, at the stroke of an undoubtedly expensive pen across the bottom of his new contract, turned into a variety of less pleasant things in various parts of the country. A villain, a turncoat, a waste of time, were some of the more printable words and phrases offered up.
Welcome, dear readers, to the febrile world of modern football where everyone’s grip on reality is as fragile as the gossamer threads holding Raheem’s delicate designer shirts together. This is a world where, these days, history is cheap and banter trumps everything, where you can be king of the castle one day and a spurned and criticised pauper the next.
Sterling has not suddenly become a poor player overnight, as the most insightful of Liverpool’s support have been trying to tell us above the din of the outraged masses. His fee is not as outrageous as many think, given other clubs’ similarly high spending rates for older, lesser talented players. City, damned if they do and damned if the don’t, are paying -- or being forced to pay -- the going rate (or above) for absolute top quality (English) footballing pedigree. Make no mistake, Sterling is not yet Paul Pogba quality, but he is a fantastic young player with the world at his feet, feet presumably that will continue to twinkle for City as well as they have done for Liverpool.
Feet that -- in fact -- twinkled so well when the two sides last met at Anfield, he managed to wrong-foot half of the City defence with a deft swerve, a classic pause for thought and another lightning quick jerk to the right, before dispatching a smoothly placed pass into the Kop end net beyond a bamboozled Joe Hart. If the old adage of making yourself stronger whilst weakening your rivals is one worth believing in, City are following a well trodden path here.
City, meanwhile, must now move on quickly to their next transfer targets. The market is in a state of full bodied flux. This topsy turvy atmosphere was perhaps one of the reasons the haggling over Sterling had to come to an abrupt end. In signing the Liverpool player, City have sent out a message to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba -- both thought to be next in the firing line of Txiki Begiristain --- that City will be put off neither by FFP nor the criticism at home in their attempts to recruit the talent which will carry them up a level.
The club has reached the rarefied sub-plateau of those teams feeding close to the game’s kings. The biggest challenges of all perhaps still lie ahead. How can the club hope to compete on an even keel with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, whose modus operandi acts like a giant suction pump to the football world’s talent? The electrical energy around these two clubs is like no other on the planet. City are already engaging comfortably with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea on the domestic front. As relative newcomers to the top table the club still finds itself criticised for its extravagant spending, its creative accounting, its over-generous wages. People conveniently forget the money mountain that is modern football can only be climbed using more of the same commodity. In many ways it has always been like this. Money has always spoken loudest and those that decry or deny this are shying away from the distasteful truth.
Manchester City, once the blue eyed boys of English football fans for hovering pathetically on the high moral step of continued, slapstick, decades-long failure, are now denigrated by many as nouveaux riches upstarts, upsetting the established order at the top of the pile. Ironically, with the strong feeling that they are one of the last to crawl over the gap before the drawbridge thuds shut, it may never happen again. We may be stuck with an elite group that gets bigger and stronger from now on. It is hardly something that we all, as football fans, should applaud, but one would do well to get used to seeing Manchester City as a part of it, for better or worse.