England talisman Raheem Sterling stands on brink of fairytale ending after blistering Euro 2020

Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Carl Recine - Pool/Getty Images)Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Carl Recine - Pool/Getty Images)
Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Carl Recine - Pool/Getty Images)
The Manchester City winger continues to shine for the Three Lions.

Raheem Sterling has probably had far too much written about him over the years.

Unfairly maligned by certain sections of the media and frequently singled out, the 26-year-old has often come in for attention that has nothing to do with the fact that he is, to put it simply, a very very good footballer.

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After his talismanic run of performances at Euro 2020, however, even his most vocal and unhinged critics are having to concede to the bleeding obvious – Raheem Sterling might just be a national hero.

Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Help England to lift a first major trophy since 1966 when they come up against Italy on Sunday night, and it will be a matter beyond any doubt. Hell, they might even give him a knighthood, and wouldn’t that be delicious?

For Sterling himself, you get the impression that the superfluous nonsense that often dominates the conversation surrounding him is very much secondary to the drive and passion that have taken him so far in his career. Since he was a child growing up in Wembley, all he has wanted to do is play football, and now he gets to do that for his nation, in the biggest game of a lifetime, at a stadium which he, more than most, can justifiably call home.

Writing in a superb article for the Players’ Tribune back in 2018, Sterling summed it up in suitably poignant terms.

“I grew up in the shadow of my dream. Literally”, he said.

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Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Raheem Sterling. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

"I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden. One day, I walked outside and I saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain.

"I used to kick about in this green right by my house, and I could take a shot on goal and then turn round to celebrate and the Wembley arch would literally be right above my head. It was like you were there.

"I was really like, I can play there. I can do it.”

At the risk of sounding overly corny, Sterling now stands on the brink of a fairytale ending – and it would be made all the more magical by the fact that he has played such a huge part in bringing it to fruition.

While England got off to a typically sluggish start in the group stage, the Manchester City winger consistently acted as a much-needed shot in arm, bothering and pestering defenders with that bustling dash of his and his knack for popping up in opportune areas.

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It was his goal that got things rolling in the opener against Croatia, and his smart finish against the Czech Republic that injected some belief back into fans after a dour stalemate against Scotland.

In the round of 16, Sterling etched his name into the annals of history with the first strike against Germany, and it was his jinking run that controversially won the Three Lions their vital extra time penalty against Denmark in the semi-final.

But Sterling’s Euro 2020 has been about more than those big, memorable moments.

For one thing, his work rate has been phenomenal. Countless times this tournament we’ve seen promising opposition attacks defused at a crucial juncture, and the man holding the proverbial pliers, scampering away with the ball at his feet, has been Sterling. In fact, in England’s squad, only Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, and Declan Rice have averaged more tackles per 90 minutes than the City star.

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And when he gets on the ball, his diminutive stature belies the huge havoc he can create. Sterling has made the most dribbles per game out of any player in Gareth Southgate’s squad, and his tally is even more impressive taken in the context of his peers’ output.

Three successful runs per 90 minutes may not sound like an earth-shattering amount, but it's nearly twice as many as Bukayo Saka, three times as many as Phil Foden, and almost four times as many as Jack Grealish. That in itself is quite remarkable.

Come the end of competition, you would imagine that Sterling will be there or thereabouts when it comes to the team of the tournament, and his reputation will surely have flourished in the eyes of many after a series of wholly impressive displays on one of the grandest stages of them all.

But it’s also easy to imagine that the winger holds little interest in those fleeting personal accolades.

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From the beginning of his career right the way through to his recent heroics, Sterling has always taken a more holistic, ambitious view of things, his concerns have always been higher than the cheap shots and pettiness that are often fired at him.

Make no mistake, when the boy from Wembley steps out into the palatial stadium at the end of his old street on Sunday night, he will be aching with every fibre of his being to bring football home for a nation that hasn’t always appreciated him as much as they perhaps should have.

Whether it’s fate, or whether it’s the same willpower that has carried him this far, don’t be surprised if he has a hand in doing just that.