STILL HE RISES: INTRODUCING THE REAL RAHEEM STERLING

Once upon a time, there lived a “flashy love rat”, who “flaunted” his bad attitude as brazenly as he did his “bling”.

He was, without reservation, a “troublemaker.” He was, without restriction, “lazy”.

As the “flop” matured, he only became more “obscene,” adopting a new hobby: being “happy to insult fans”.

This “failure” was nothing short of a “national disgrace”.

It is post-Euro 2016 and preparations for the new season decorate Liverpool’s Academy base in Kirkby, but a recurring centre-piece of conversation is Raheem Sterling.

The shy, raw-boned kid that walked through the doors of this facility aged 15 had moved to Manchester City in acrimonious circumstances a year earlier, but there is clearly no reduction in affection or concern for “Razza”.

The staff are “sickened” by the tabloid coverage of the England international, who has been framed as the poster boy for their embarrassment at the tournament.

The scapegoating escalates to such an alarming extent that Sterling dubs himself #TheHatedOne.

“I hope that one day soon, people will see the real Raheem - a wonderful young man - and not just go off the stupid fiction being put out,” says a long-serving member of the Academy. “The person being written about is not the one I know.”

Three years and countless hatchet jobs later - from Sterling being too rich while “flaunting his wealth” by buying his mum, Nadine, a house, or being too cheap looking for bargains at Poundland or taking an easyJet flight in-between committing cardinal sins like eating a Greggs sausage roll or driving a filthy car - it seems the erroneous perception is finally starting to crack.

And the truth - the light of a masterful, strong-willed, genteel player and person - shines through.

But, if you were looking in with untainted eyes, the real Raheem Sterling has always stood up and stood out.

Take, for example, some of the descriptions from those who make up thebibliography of his career: “well-mannered”, “determined to be the best”, "motivated not materialistic", “quiet, but loud with the ball at his feet”, “one of the nicest kids to work with…”

There seems to be sentiment that this Raheem - the match-winner, the man outspoken on important matters, the champion - deserves to be covered in a golden glaze.

But there was nothing wrong with that Raheem beyond an awful, fabricated portrayal in the press that coloured public perception of him.

Clive Ellington, who mentored youngsters in Brent that had absent fathers, recalled how, as an undersized nine-year-old who would be submerged in his kit, Sterling possessed an unfaltering belief that he would become a professional footballer.

At the time, he didn’t even belong to a team, spending hours kicking the ball at a wall outside his home, a daily ritual to practice his touch, turn, passing and shooting technique.

His desire to be the very best was so sharp that when he did join a squad - Alpha and Omega, a Sunday youth side associated with a Christian fellowship - he'd cry if he was losing during training sessions.

Even then Sterling was, according to Ellington, gripped by the glory of doing the thing he loved rather than fawning over “trimmings” like the latest boots or hottest trainers.

The tiny terrier with searing speed and balletic balance from St Raphael’s Estate had spent just over a year at Vernon House, a school for children that have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Sterling, as Ellington and others testify, didn’t need to be pulled out of mainstream education, he simply required refuge and a place to channel his energy, which the pitch provided.

Beyond his mum and siblings, he could draw on Ellington’s guidance and later counted on Steve Gallen from the age of 10 at Queens Park Rangers, where he was rewarded with an extended schoolboy contract two years later.

There, what the pre-teen with “stardust in his toes” could do was no secret: Arsenal were still circling despite losing out to the Hoops, while their rivals Tottenham were also trying to lure him away from Loftus Road.

Regardless, Gallen, who was QPR’s senior professional development coach, was convinced Sterling would become the club’s youngest-ever debutant.  It wasn’t far-fetched: the attacker didn’t just have the technical gifts to thrive, but the right temperament too.

He was good and steely enough to play with the Under-16s at 13, linking up with the 18s at 14. As he scaled age groups, the scouts flooded in from Merseyside and Manchester, with QPR in a fight they couldn't possibly win.

At 15, Liverpool parted with an initial £500,000 to land the wonderkid, and within the walls of the training complex, there were two constants saluted about the exciting new acquisition: his tactical intelligence and mental fortitude.

“He is one of the very best young players I have ever seen - if not the best,” Phil Roscoe, the head of education and welfare at Liverpool’s Academy explained in 2014.

“Staff here who had the pleasure of working with a young Steven [Gerrard] or Michael [Owen] talk about their level, and say he's on it.

“One of the things that stood out for me about Raheem is that no matter who we were playing, or how the game was going and regardless if he'd been heavily tackled, he would get the ball and just keep going and going and going... attacking the full-back endlessly into submission and it didn't matter if it was the first minute or the 91st, he'd have the same desire and tempo.

“He was such a positive influence because he was always looking for the breakthrough, always working with his teammates to make something happen. He just didn't know when he was beaten - he wouldn't allow it.

“He had that steel in him that no matter what came his way in the form of punishment from an opponent or life obstacles, he would overcome it. That attitude has definitely worked in his favour."

Those behind the scenes at Kirkby will attest that Sterling didn’t have a halo - two court cases against him for assault were dropped and he was caught inhaling laughing gas - but maintain that any mistakes he made are something he learned from rather than a definitive guide to who he is.

They have always been bemused by the painting of him as some kind of superbrat.

At 15, the speedster was named St Helens’ Young Elite Performer of the Year and sourced his suit for the ceremony from Next.

He was nervous about going on stage to accept his award and, having had no media exposure as he was still a student, was terrified of giving a speech.

During his first two years on Merseyside, his life revolved solely around football, education and visiting his family. The house parents he lived with while attending Rainhill High - already in their 70s - loved Sterling, treating him like their own grandson, feeding back to the club what a pleasure it was to take care of him.

During this period there were instances when sensitive situations would arise back at his home in north west London and the prodigy would insist he needed to be there to sort it out even if it was on the eve of a match.

“It was always family first for him,” an LFC Academy employee detailed. “For a lot of young footballers, it is easy to lose a sense of responsibility beyond what you have to do football-wise, but never with Raheem.

“We’d drive to his home, sort the matter out and drive back. He’d be calm knowing his mum and siblings were okay. We’d get to Liverpool in the early hours of the morning and I’d wonder just how he was going to perform in the game that same afternoon. There was never reason to worry because Raheem was bulletproof.

“He would play like nothing had happened, and in fact, his team-mates and most people didn’t even know what transpired the night before.

“There are many things I respect about him, but his strength in adversity is probably the biggest.”

Sterling considered his colleagues at the academy an extension to his family and even after becoming a regular for Liverpool, he would routinely return to Kirkby to support them on his own accord.

“A big brother” is how he was labelled by coaches, who remember his willingness to help fellow young hopefuls in whatever way he could. Despite being part of an influential, terrorising attacking unit alongside Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho, and Daniel Sturridge, while being supplied by Steven Gerrard, Sterling still viewed himself as “one of the Academy lads”.

He is genuinely missed by so many at Liverpool - stretching from the players to personnel - and while there is warmth internally when he returns to the club, it is not mirrored on the terraces as is the case with most premier stars that push for an exit to a domestic rival.

There are long, detailed memories of the windy Wednesday evening under theAnfield lights on 2 March, 2016 when he walked out in front of the Kop for the first time following his £49 million switch to City eight months earlier.

The home crowd jeering his every involvement, their amplified boos punctuated by chants of “one greedy bastard”.  Jon Flanagan had the measure of Sterling in the first half, which led to him being replaced at the start of the second 45 by Wilfried Bony - a substitution capped by ironic cheers.

As he made his way off the pitch, vulgarities being volleyed in his direction, City’s No. 7 caught sight of some of the press and backroom staff from Melwood near the tunnel. In the storm of Fs, Bs and Cs, he stopped to greet all of them.

“He’d been booed, ridiculed, had an awful game and must have been so frustrated, yet he was still so kind,” noted one observer at the time. “I’m much older than him, and I can’t imagine I’d have handled things with as much maturity as he did.”

Sterling’s departure from Liverpool should have been navigated in a cleaner, less corrosive way by all parties, but ultimately, he has everything he had hoped for at the Etihad, where the same testaments about his character flow.

Despite Pep Guardiola’s galaxy of stars, Sterling still glistens and has garnered the status of being a reference point.

Leroy Sane has termed him “an example” both on the pitch and off it. Jadon Sancho, now at Borussia Dortmund, considers him a mentor as does fellow England international Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea.

The 24-year-old has been a crime ambassador for a police charity, donated a substantial sum to the Grenfell Tower fund, given his time to Football Beyond Borders, has funded the building of schools in Kingston, helped Damary Dawkins find a blood stem cell donor, before paying a touching tribute to the Crystal Palace youngster, who sadly lost his battle with leukaemia.

Sterling the son, who helped his mother clean toilets in Stonebridge and had to get his breakfast out of the vending machine, has arranged for 550 pupils from his old school - Copland Community renamed Ark Elvin Academy in 2014 - to attend City’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton at Wembley on Saturday.

As is the same with Kingston, the area of Brent is dear to Sterling, who is pursuing opening up a football centre for disadvantaged kids in his old neighbourhood.

He hasn’t forgotten or forsaken his roots. And he isn’t going to quietly let the future be determined by the kind of people that disparagingly look down on him and others of a similar background.

The father of two has emerged as a leader in football’s fight against racism having himself been a victim on multiple occasions.

Sterling’s ability has been a perfect tonic to the toxicity - scoring twice in a 4-1 victory over Tottenham hours after being subjected to a racially aggravated common assault by Karl Anderson in December 2017 - but he has crucially added his strong voice to combat discrimination.

A year on from that incident, in which he was kicked on his left hamstring four times, called “you black Scouse c**t” and told “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning, you n****r,” the City ace was verbally abused by Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge.

Sterling posted on Instagram after the episode, calling into question the contrasting way the media portrays black players with their white counterparts.

The Professional Footballers' Association agreed with his point that the negative phrasing and angling around the former group “emboldens racist rhetoric”.

In February, Sterling met Ethan Ross - a Newport County academy player who had been enduring a tough time on account of slurs about his skin - after City's FA Cup fifth-round win at the Welsh side.

He had already written to the 13-year-old a month earlier, after his grandmother flagged his struggles with the abuse.

Then while on England duty in Montenegro at the end of March, Sterling confronted the racists in the crowd with yet another well-taken goal, a dominating display and a celebration which he explained was “to let them know that you’re going to have to do better than that to stop us.”

And this week, he called out Leonardo Bonucci, who suggested his Juventus team-mate Moise Kean was partially responsible for the monkey noises aimed at him by Cagliari fans.

The 19-year-old Kean responded to the despicable taunts by spreading his arms out and eyeballing the culprits after bagging the second goal in a 2-0 win.

“I think the blame is 50-50,” came Bonucci’s immediate assessment in the aftermath, which Sterling rightly condemned as laughable.

His game-changer status transcends 90 minutes. People are not only finally starting to see the real Raheem, but hear and feel his power too.

Raheem Sterling has not yet turned 25. He is a Premier League champion and two-time League Cup winner. Raheem Sterling has not yet turned 25 and is a core weapon for City as they chase an unprecedented quadruple.

He has been Liverpool’s Young Player of the Year twice and Europe’s Golden Boy.

Raheem Sterling, with 19 goals and 16 assists in all competitions thus far this season, has not yet turned 25 and is a credit to himself.

He is still here, still in love with football, still soaring.

He has never hid, regardless of what dirt was shovelled his way in tabloids, from the terraces or the opinions of pundits.

He is magic, but moreover, he is immovable.

For so long, too many filed Sterling under all speed and athleticism despite him being one of the most tactically astute players in Europe.

Brendan Rodgers could play him as Liverpool’s focal point, on either wing and on the defensive flanks. He would sometimes operate in different roles during the same game.

His positional intelligence was one of the overriding reasons City were devoted to pinching him from Anfield and as Guardiola has stated: “His understanding of the game is global. He's a guy who can create inside, make a movement outside, dribbling, runs in behind.”

Park the trickery and he is not just defensively disciplined, but strong in duels too with Steven Gerrard once declaring: “I don't go near him in training because if I do, there is only one winner.”

In early 2014, Liverpool’s former head of performance Glen Driscoll explained his physical toughness in greater detail.

“Pound for pound Raheem is probably the strongest in the group,” he told the club’s official website. “So relative to his body weight in a contest with Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, my money would be on 'Razza'! But obviously his incredible strength, power, speed and agility is specific to his position and his job on the pitch.

“We have a strength day in our training methodology, a football session, not gym session that overloads him in those combat scenarios [take-ons, tackles, ball-shielding]. Perhaps, Raheem's greatest gift though is his aerobic fitness.

“His speed endurance is unrivalled in his position. I said to him last pre-season, I've never seen a winger with quite this gift. He can work and work with very little metabolic cost.

“This is why he is so relentless both defensively with tracking, and offensively taking them the other way consistently for the duration of the 90 minutes.

“Raheem has been blessed with all these physical attributes along with his obvious ability.”

As is the case with Sterling being depicted as a new and improved version of himself as a person, so too is there seemingly a need to sketch him as a completely different footballer.

The major changes in his game - greater composure in front of goal, improved decision-making, increased responsibility - are natural additions with age, minutes and experience.

Guardiola’s attention to the smallest details and his help in developing Sterling is unquestionable, but as the manager has reminded: "When City bought this player with an important amount of money, it's because of his talent.”

He has always been special. Now, as per Gareth Southgate, “he’s in a really confident moment, not only on the field, but off the field he’s so mature and comfortable in himself.”

Sterling is expected to tussle with Virgil van Dijk for the PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Footballer of the Year accolades and, while the former has been transformative for Liverpool and their most important asset, it would not be a surprise to see the multi-faceted forward with over 300 career appearances to his name lift one or even both prizes.

Who would begrudge him such a glorious arc to a tale that has largely been so callous and caustic to him?

Certainly not his former club, where the majority of players - who cannot vote for their colossus of a centre-half - are expected to select Sterling on their PFA ballot.

In 2015, he shared the phrase: “Be you. The world will adjust.”

It finally has.

Once upon a time, there lived a supremely gifted footballer, a father of two who stayed true to himself and his roots.

He was, without reservation, a game-changer. He was, without restriction, special.

As his talent matured, he became more composed with greater confidence in his capabilities.

This luminary is nothing short of a national treasure.