• He was jeered by his own fans in the next game against Wales. A game they won.
• Sterling became the easy scapegoat of a failing England side
The date is June 11, 2016. England have just drawn with Russia in their opening group game at Euro 2016, having conceded a desperate late equaliser in stoppage time.
It was the kind of turgid performance — lacking in intensity or ideas — that would typify their campaign under Roy Hodgson until they were sent home by Iceland.
Raheem Sterling struggled in that opening game. He made a couple of mistakes and lost his confidence. He was by no means the only one, nor was he the worst.
But, as has so often been the case when it comes to Sterling, he was singled out for criticism.
So much so that when Sterling posted a picture on Instagram after the game he felt compelled to end his message with #TheHatedOne.
Instead of that prompting any kind of self-reflection from the critics, it led another stream of criticism, telling Sterling to retire or just hurling abuse.
He was jeered by his own fans in the next game against Wales. A game they won.
But Sterling became the easy scapegoat of a failing England side. His place in the team was under threat.
It was times like these that Gareth Southgate meant when he said of Sterling: “We cannot hide from the fact he has had difficult moments.”
Those are behind him now. On Friday night, Sterling left Wembley to a standing ovation and with the match ball tucked under his arm after his hat-trick helped England to a 5-0 thrashing of Czech Republic to open their Euro 2020 qualification campaign. From the villain of the previous campaign to the poster boy of the next.
Southgate said that Sterling has ‘turned full circle’. That would suggest, though, that Sterling has been here before with England. He has not.
This is a new Sterling, one who is playing at a level higher than ever and with the responsibilities to match. Southgate has promoted Sterling to the team’s leadership group.
“This is what dreams are made of,” said Sterling after his performance at Wembley. “I’m in my home town, I’m happy to see it come true.”
It is indicative not only of the collective youth of Southgate’s new breed but also of how far Sterling has come that he is now considered one of the daddies of the team.
“He showed all the youngsters what it’s about,” said Jadon Sancho after his first competitive start at Wembley. “I’m just happy that I’m sharing a pitch with him. He’s cool. He speaks to me and Callum Hudson-Odoi about what to do and what not to do and just gives us advice.”
The implication is that Sterling is not a youngster any more. That seems odd for a player who only turned 24 three months ago. But, when you consider Sterling’s journey to get to this moment, it’s easy to see why Southgate could not have selected a more worthy candidate to be one of his leaders.
Southgate also called him a role model. It is an over-used phrase but in Sterling’s case it is apt. Born in Jamaica but raised in the shadows of Wembley, he has paved the way for a generation of young footballers from the tough areas of London, emerging talents like Sancho and Hudson-Odoi.
“Because he is from London, he knows where I’m coming from,” added Sancho. “He’s been helping me a lot.”
Sterling donated to the victims of the Grenfell disaster. He showed public frustration with Brent Council over their resistance to his plans to open an academy for disadvantaged children. He dedicated his goals on Friday night to Crystal Palace youth player Damary Dawkins who died from leukaemia aged 12. Sterling had tried to help find a stem cell donor.
He has done all of this, throughout his career, in the face of racism from the stands and amid a narrative from certain areas of the media which has allowed such treatment to fester.
Sterling, in the wake of alleged racial abuse by Chelsea fans in December, decided enough was enough. He spoke out, and everyone had to listen.
What has spoken just as loudly are Sterling’s performances on the pitch. “His numbers are crazy,” says Sancho. They are.
Sterling has scored 15 goals for Manchester City in the Premier League this season. He has set up nine more. No player has been directly involved in more goals.
He’s doing it for England now, too. A lack of end product has been a frequent criticism of his game at international level. Having gone 27 games without a goal, he has now scored five in his last three.
He has become the first England player to score a hat-trick at Wembley since Jermain Defoe in 2010 and the first, following his treble for City against Watford, to score a hat-trick for club and country in the same month since Alan Shearer in 1999.
It is no surprise Leicester defender and England team-mate Harry Maguire has voted for him to be crowned PFA Player of the Year.
“He’s been the best player in the Premier League,” said Maguire. ”He’s scoring goals, creating goals and he’s a nightmare to play against. He’s taken his game from last year, where people saw the rise of Raheem, to this year where he has gone on to another level.”
Maguire will not have been the only one. And if Sterling does pick up the award, there will be few who deserve it more.