GARETH SOUTHGATE was scouting for England at the 2014 World Cup when he took a closer look at Raheem Sterling.
It was Italy in the opener, a 2-1 defeat in Manaus in the Amazon jungle, when he marvelled at Sterling’s fearlessness.
He was 19, coming off an exceptional season with Liverpool in the year they came within a whisker of winning the title under Brendan Rodgers.
What a player Sterling turned out to be.
Southgate said: “I think back to the World Cup in Brazil, in the first game against Italy, I’m sat in Brazil, watching him, and he was just a huge threat from the start.
“You know how much it means to him, how much he wants to do well.
“It’s for him to reflect on how he felt then but it’s just lovely to see a young man establishing himself at the real top table in the game.”
During the man-of-the-match presentation after England’s chaotic 5-3 win over Kosovo, he still respectfully pointed out that they have been doing it for a lot longer.
Even so, at 24, Southgate is convinced Sterling can take the next big step.
Sterling and Sancho have become part of a potent England forward line[/caption]
England’s head coach said: “In terms of ‘Can he fulfil it?’ he’ll give himself every chance.
“There are some outstanding players around, the Hazards, the De Bruynes, plus the two mentioned.
“But he’s got the drive, he’s got the professionalism, he’s got the ability, he’s strong and he’s physically and mentally strong for such a small-statured lad.
“The rest of the players look at that and they see that mentality. It has a big impression on them.
“He’s now a two-time Premier League winner, so the honours are starting to stack up.
“All that has done is give him the hunger to go on further.
“I’m delighted he’s getting public recognition and long may it continue.”
Sterling is a force for good on and off the field, with his reach now stretching into different areas of the sport.
On Monday he spent time with Jadon Sancho, walking him through the increased demands and scrutiny of international football.
The Borussia Dortmund youngster, starting on the opposite wing against Kosovo, had been begging Sterling to set him up for his first international goals. In the end, he provided him with two.
Southgate added: “When I have the leadership group in, he’s very clear but thoughtful with his opinions. If there are things that he thinks can be better with the mentality of the players, or the way we’ve set the week out, he’ll thoughtfully put ideas across – he doesn’t just sit and complain.
“Then you see his interaction with the players.
“I noticed, over the last 24 hours especially, he spent a lot of time with Jadon and that was probably quite a comfort.
“I can pass things on but there’ll be more depth to that if your fellow winger, who has been at the same club as you and has been through what you’re going to go through, can talk to you.
“That’s far more powerful. You can’t quantify what that will have meant for Jadon.”
Off the field, Sterling was signing autographs for gooey-eyed young England fans at St Mary’s and even took off his boots to give to one star-struck kid.
It is the little things that make all the difference, giving a bit back to the game that opened up a fantastic career for him.
Southgate added: “If you look at the reaction of the crowd when he gets the ball, there’s excitement for young and old have watching him play.
“He came home a bit sad after the World Cup, there’s no hiding from that.
“He didn’t deserve to feel that way but that’s how he was.
“At the same time he rose to the challenge with his club, with new signings coming in and kept fighting them off.
“When he got the Nations League goals in Spain last year it was such a huge weight lifted he almost jumped six foot in the stadium. Off the field he was also very forthright in his social media posts.
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“He raised everybody’s awareness and made us all think, which was very mature and impressive. For me it’s lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him.”
He is a national treasure now, a superstar defined by his influence on and off the field.
As Southgate knows, there are not many of them around.
This post written by James Gray originally appeared on Football news - transfers, fixtures, scores, pictures | The Sun. Read the full post here.