The noise was tinnitus-inducing.

‘Give it Steeeeerlin’, they screeched again and again and again until the cumulative effect reached something like a pre-pubescent version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

On the pitch Liverpool under-19s laboured on their NextGen Series debut against a technically sublime Sporting Lisbon. Off it, the keening of adolescent boys reached a pitch sufficient to worry half the dogs in L4.

As a glimpse of the future of the Kop the evening was fairly terrifying. They’ll grow out of it. Probably.

As a foretaste of the future of ‘Steeeeerlin’ himself it was instructive.

Already, at just 16 and in a side featuring the far more experienced Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Robinson, Raheem Sterling was a totemic figure for the fans, a reference point and source of hope in a team which on the day struggled for cohesion and sustained quality.

Sterling posed a threat, particularly as the young Reds grew in confidence after half-time. Yet the longer the second half wore on the more that threat was neutralised, the Portuguese side doubling up at right-back as the Liverpool approach became predictable.

Still the kids screamed, and still the ball was switched with depressing familiarity to the left flank, eventually drawing the sting from the Reds’ period of pressure and allowing Sporting to reassert control.

One day soon Sterling will make his first team debut, and it’s not hard to imagine a similar, if somewhat gruffer, response from the regular Anfield crowd.

Then it will really start. Aside from the fans, Sterling will be a huge hit with the press.

His surname’s a gift to pun-hungry sub-editors (my attempt above), while those churning out the words beneath them will be eager to rush out superlatives and fatuous comparisons with players of the past.

The new Heighway, the new McManaman, above all the new Barnes.

Born in Jamaica, roughly similar position, plays for Liverpool. Bingo.

In truth the search for equivalence will do a disservice to both men. John Barnes, in many ways among the most important players ever to represent the club, was also a joy to watch.

Lithe, fast, almost balletic, he scored and created wonderful goals. We expect Sterling could offer some of the same.

But Barnes, when signed, was pretty close to the complete article. Remember, he came to Anfield after his remarkable goal at the Maracana. He had been the key man in a Watford side which had fought its way in to the top flight, and then to a second-placed finish and an FA Cup final.

Sterling, despite an impressive record for the reserves and bags of potential, has nothing like that level of experience.

His own sensational international goal came for the under-17s against Rwanda. The comparison, when it comes, will be unfair and will place unnecessary pressure on a young player who will need time and patience to develop.

Another contrast to Barnes lies in Sterling’s physical stature. Several inches shorter and much slighter of frame, Raheem is far less equipped than Barnes to go shoulder-to-shoulder with defenders.

Barnes at his best was an amalgam of grace and grit, his natural flair harnessed by Graham Taylor to serve one of the most successfully direct teams of the early 1980s.

Barring a huge growth spurt, Sterling won’t be cut from the same cloth. He may well have the guile and ability to deal with some of the more physical sides in the Premier League, but his approach will have to differ to that of Barnes.

As things stand his greatest asset is the ability to move at speed with the ball, an acquired skill entirely different from the kind of straight-line pace which sometimes masks young players’ technical deficiencies, undetected like a rookie fighter’s glass jaw before his first serious meeting with a journeyman pro.

Sterling, we believe, has plenty more to offer than that. He just might need a bit more time to develop his game than the media, and the Kop, will allow him.

@steve_graves

Cookie consent by Real Cookie Banner