“Do you feel like you have justified your selection today?” It was a bold question to ask a player who had just scored England’s winner against Croatia, taking his international record to 13 goals in 17 games. “I am trying,” replied Raheem Sterling.
Four weeks on and he is succeeding in ways few in this country could have dreamed. The Boy from Brent, England’s hero. Team of the tournament? Player of the tournament. A leader of men who has delivered his best in the biggest moments.
That question-turned-meme has been much mocked but it was not without some substance and that is what makes Sterling’s story so compelling. “He is a fighter,” says Gareth Southgate. And he has had to fight. For his place with club and with country.
He was not in everyone’s team at the start of this tournament. Partly because he was not in Pep Guardiola’s team at the end of Manchester City’s season. There was a growing fear that Sterling’s form had dipped at just the wrong time.
He was trusted with only two minutes in the two legs of City’s Champions League quarter-final and just eight minutes against Paris Saint-Germain in the last four. A slightly surprising pick for the final in Porto, Guardiola’s gamble did not pay off.
For England, others were emerging. Sterling missed all three international games in October as Southgate awarded first starts to Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka. When he missed three more games in November, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho made their case.
Southgate bet on pedigree when others began to doubt. “His record suggests that we should have faith with him.” More than that, he bet on character when others were taking that quality for granted. “He has got an incredible resilience and hunger.”
Sterling himself speaks of being hardened by his experiences, a journey in which he has had to learn to ignore the noise and find motivation from within. He feels the emotions of the crowd, that was evident at Wembley on Wednesday, but his focus has been total.
There is an illusion with big-game players, a tendency to think that they raise their game. Often, it is those around them who are unable to maintain their composure when it matters most. The best are unfazed. It allows them to deliver when others cannot.
Sterling impressed Southgate immediately against Croatia. “Right from the start there was a throw-in inside and he was running at their defence and looking a threat.” Foden’s shot hit the post but it set the tone. Sterling scoring the second-half winner.
Those runs into the box are his trademark and while the finish itself was not the cleanest, the critics miss the point. They don’t all go in, Kasper Schmeichel kept one out in the semi-final, but if it is so easy to get into those positions then why doesn’t everyone do it?
“He has developed over the last couple of years this real hunger to score, even in the games where the opportunities where the ball has flashed across the box earlier in the tournament, he has been in between the posts. He is finding himself in these areas.”
Sterling scored England’s first three goals at Euro 2020. Nobody has scored more from open play. But he has been even better since the quarter-final stage. He is unlikely be the top scorer at the tournament now. He will have to settle for being the best player.
The vision that he showed for the opening goal against Ukraine was sensational, a pass that practically demanded the run from a hitherto motionless Harry Kane. Even that performance was a mere prelude to his heroics against Denmark. He was an inspiration.
One down and with the team looking flustered, Sterling provoked the comeback, the catalyst for the own goal and the debated penalty. He completed nine dribbles. Impressive in itself, but more so given that nobody else on the pitch managed more than two.
He was the man making things happen and he was still doing so in the last of 120 minutes, his sixth shot almost creeping past Schmeichel when he burst clear once more. His freshness was astonishing given that half the players on the pitch had not been there at the start.
“He just tore them to shreds,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports.
Sterling just kept going and growing, beating defenders repeatedly in extra time from a right-wing position that he had been switched to in order to accommodate others. It is the selflessness expected of a leader and that is what Sterling has become.
He is not the oldest player in this England squad, but he is the most experienced, the man with the most caps. His appearance in the final will be his 19th in a major tournament, putting him in a select group of six men. None of the others made it this far.
This is his fourth tournament with England. In 2014, he was full of promise. In 2016, he was dragged down in the malaise with the rest, hooked at half-time against Wales and booed by his own fans even before the ignominy of that Iceland defeat.
The World Cup in 2018 brought some success but he never had his big moment and endured constant speculation about his role in the side. Nobody should be shocked that he has rebounded from the criticism. It is what he does. Finally, the summer of Sterling is here.
“We know the journey he has been on with England and I am so happy for him to be able to deliver the performances that he has,” says Southgate. “To deliver them at Wembley will have been really special for him.” Just one more challenge stands in his way now.
“He could be absolutely key on Sunday,” says Neville. It is a chance for him to confirm his status as an England great, a sporting icon. He does not appear to be in the mood to let it pass him by. Yes, Raheem Sterling has justified his selection. Do not doubt him again.