A year ago on Friday, the England defender John Stones was pushing the case for his club and international teammate Raheem Sterling to be named as the outstanding player of a gripping, exhilarating European Championship.
Their national side had just reached the final thanks to two decisive interventions from Sterling in their semi, on top of his three goals in the previous matches.
Twelve months on, Stones is preparing to bid Sterling farewell, their association at Manchester City poised to come to an end with the striker’s probable move to Chelsea, where personal terms have been agreed and the selling and buying clubs are close to agreement on a fee of between £45m and £50m.
Stones and Sterling have won four Premier League titles and numerous cups together, and though they can look forward to many more afternoons and nights as allies in the national side, the end of Sterling’s time as a City player will resonate heavily, and do so all around the Etihad campus.
His stamp on City’s successes of the last five years is deep and bold, and extends far beyond the 78 goals he contributed to the club’s quartet of league titles since 2018.
Sterling is only 27, and ambitious for the kind of individual prize Stones recommended for him as England approached the final of the last Euros, which they lost on penalties to Italy.
The Azzurri goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma was named Player of the Tournament partly as a result of that shoot-out. Sterling’s status as a leader of the England renaissance remains intact nonetheless.
He covets a place on a Ballon d’Or podium and had begun to suspect that, without a guaranteed starting place in the City line-up for the most important matches, that target might recede. Last season, Sterling began the two legs of City’s Champions League semi-final on the bench, where manager Pep Guardiola had also left him for the second leg of the quarter-final against Atletico Madrid.
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With Gabriel Jesus having left City for Arsenal, a radical refit of City’s front line is in progress. Erling Haaland’s arrival equips the club with a brilliant young goalscorer and, for the first time in many years, an elite centre-forward who meets the description of an orthodox target man. He will slot into a team where the playing system is dazzlingly refined but looks very different from 14 months ago, when Sterling, Jesus and Sergio Aguero – now retired – were up front together as City celebrated their 2020-21 title.
There is no rancour towards City from Sterling, who appreciates how his work under Guardiola has elevated him as a footballer. He fought hard, back in 2015 to push through a move to City, upsetting Liverpool, whose academy he had joined as a 15-year-old with exceptional dribbling skills. He matured hugely in Manchester, captaining City on occasion. England have been direct beneficiaries of his increased confidence, creativity and leadership.
Should the final details of his transfer to Chelsea be agreed, Sterling will have a unique CV, a collection of club employers who are undoubtedly the dominant trio in the Premier League in the period of his peak years: Liverpool, champions in 2020, European Cup winners in 2019; the serially successful City; plus Chelsea, who were the last club from outside England’s north-west to win the league – in 2017 – and who defeated City to win the 2021 Champions League final.
A European Cup would embellish Sterling’s list of honours and he would be a statement recruit for a Chelsea embarking on a new era under fresh ownership, following the enforced sale of the club last month by Roman Abramovich, the sanctioned Russia-born billionaire. Like City, Chelsea are adjusting their attacking strategy, with Romelu Lukaku being loaned to Internazionale after his disappointing season, and a possible exit to AC Milan, also on loan, for Hakim Ziyech being explored.
Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, is an admirer of Sterling’s and, if his assets are well harnessed, he could give Chelsea some of the drive and verve they enjoyed from Eden Hazard over many years.
He would be back closer to the area of west London where grew up. He would be calling home a stadium where has in the past been subject to some vile abuse from a small minority of fans.
He would take a place at the top of Chelsea’s wage structure – pending other possible signings by the new ownership group – and signal to City and Liverpool that the third-placed finishers in last season’s Premier League intend to challenge the top two harder over the next 11 months.