How can we stop the media witch-hunt against Raheem Sterling?

You may have heard that a Premier League player has bought a new house.

For a multimillionaire footballer to purchase property must be a very unusual occurrence because it has sparked numerous related stories online and in the newspapers informing us that it resides close to a dogging site; boasts a mind-boggling three garages; that aluminium has been inserted into the walls to protect research undertaken at a nearby observatory that Dr Brian Cox once visited; and it was previously viewed by a distant cousin of Osama Bin Laden.

I’ve just made that last detail up but judging by the recent acceleration of obsessive nonsense written about Raheem Sterling we are surely only days away from seeing it in print. 

The tabloids’ strange infatuation with a perfectly ordinary, if rich, lad plummeted to pure farce when he was castigated last summer for having a posh sink. Since then new depths have been scraped from humanity’s undercarriage to highlight his unwashed car and penchant for Greggs pasties. You can find a sample of the news coverage afforded to the Manchester City wide-man here on Reddit.

The escalating witch-hunt of Raheem Sterling raises many questions. Why aren’t the PFA doing more to protect one of their own? What would happen if he actually did something egregious, such as sleep with his brother’s wife or light cigars in his local pub with twenty pound notes, acts that have been committed by fellow Premier League players in years gone by only to be rewarded with persisting favourable coverage. 

Mostly though it leads us to ask this – how on earth did we get to this point?

When Raheem Sterling, aided and abetted by his agent Aidy Ward, engineered a move from Liverpool to a club offering more money and significantly better chances of winning silverware his role as football’s pantomime villain was cast for life.

Since the tumultuous transfer was concluded in July 2015 close to ninety other players have switched from one Premier League club to another and most – it is fair to assume – for exactly the same reasons that motivated Sterling.  But this was Liverpool. Nobody did this to Liverpool. Liverpool did this to others. 

One year earlier, the club’s fan-base looked away and whistled when Dejan Lovren threatened to go on strike in order to secure his dream move to Anfield.  Five years earlier the Reds flexed their financial might and poached a promising kid from QPR’s academy as they struggled in the Championship. His name was Raheem Sterling.

In less enlightened times it was said that hell had no fury like a woman scorned: we can now update that to Liverpool – both the club and its supporters – experiencing a taste of their own medicine and as the saga dragged on in public a mafia of former players chimed in with their character assassinations on a teenager. Part of my job is to interview ex professionals on current footballing affairs so I know how difficult it is to get any to criticise their industry colleagues, particularly those with a career still ahead of them. Looking back now their purposeful fuelling of hatred – primarily designed to save their club’s wounded pride – was nothing short of despicable.

As for the press and wider media this was all manna from heaven. Anti-City rhetoric always ensured clicks and readers in their droves and here was an opportunity to funnel all of the miasmic resentment and distaste at City’s recent rise into one individual. Their treatment was spectacularly predictable in both method and vileness. The shy and quite clearly likeable lad from Wembley was isolated from the pack and dehumanized. He became nothing but a hefty sum; his name shorthand for greed and all that was wrong in the modern game. He became a snake.

The campaign worked a treat as it usually does when the tabloids indulge in one of their favourite pastimes of bullying for sport and soon enough the vilification of Raheem Sterling spread beyond Merseyside to provincial towns whose home fans would boo him on sight. Perhaps I have misread the situation completely and Stoke, Burnley and Swansea supporters were simply standing shoulder to shoulder with their longstanding comrades-in-arms Liverpool? Far more likely, it was newsprint influencing opinion.

As was the case with my own mum who said to me sometime last year, “What about that Sterling, eh?”

“Why, what’s he done?”

“Well, you know…”

She didn’t know but was being told morning after morning that he was a bad sort.

Once the wider general public were successfully coerced into hating on Raheem over their cornflakes it ‘legitimised’ the press into continuing with their hateful pursuit thus creating a vicious cycle. It’s a cycle we’ve seen before. It never ends well and needs to be broken.

How we do so we’ll arrive at shortly, and thankfully the solution is relatively straightforward, but there is a reason why looking back to 2015 is pertinent. Because so commonplace is the media hounding of Raheem Sterling now that it’s tempting to believe it was always prevalent and not traced directly back to a transfer. Because whether you concede or not that Liverpool supporters have just cause to find the England winger extremely disagreeable they are the only section of society with any real reason to hold a grudge.

With this in mind I recently spoke to eight Reds, friends and acquaintances varying from perfectly reasonable types to spleen-venters who dismiss City as soulless sell-outs. To a man they wish nothing but a trophy-free future for Sterling and find his hostile receptions at Anfield amusing. To a man they regard his press treatment in 2017 to be spiteful, sinister and wholly uncalled for.

In order to have their wrath amplified to maximum effect Liverpool fans did a deal with the devil but got out ages ago. To them it was emotional and times change. For the press it’s business and there is no end game.

Elsewhere other fan-bases who have every excuse to revel in the malice are similarly appalled by the relentless and puerile witch-hunt.  A recent thread on Red Cafe revealed that United fans find the media’s obsession with the player one huge turn-off.

So if United, Liverpool and City supporters are all agreed that the harassment has gone too far who exactly is providing the Daily Star and others with sufficient clicks to ‘justify’ further fascinating tales of Raheem Sterling’s shopping trips to Poundworld? Sadly it is us. You. Me. My dear old mum.

The very nature of a vicious cycle means a news agenda often goes full circle in how it is received and though the latest episodes of RaheemWatch are now largely met with ire instead of giggly glee, to the media a click is a click. Well intentioned comments beneath the cut and paste hatchet jobs demanding that the boy is left alone are entirely self-defeating. 

It’s too late; we have unintentionally been complicit and helped facilitate yet more ‘stories’. The same goes for attempting to appeal to the media’s better side. There isn’t one. Not anymore. The internet saw to that.

As difficult as it is we must collectively learn to ignore the very existence of these nonsensical articles; to starve the witch-hunt of the attention it needs to thrive. We must look the other way and whistle. 

We are divided by club allegiances but united by basic decency and together this can be done. No social media shares, no outrage, nothing, until the slime that pertain to be journalists eventually grow bored and train their sights on somebody else. It will be horrible to see – it always is – but maybe next time that person might even be someone vaguely deserving of such treatment.