ADRIAN KAJUMBA: Raheem Sterling could have baulked at a move to Chelsea after being racially abused at Stamford Bridge while a Man City player four years ago… but he is bigger and better than that

  • Raheem Sterling was racially abused by Chelsea supporters in 2018 
  • The winger is set for an excellent reception when he makes his home debut 
  • Sterling is eager to draw a line under the incident and focus on football

From all sections containing Chelsea fans, there is no doubt about the reception Raheem Sterling will receive at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

‘He’s going to get a great one,’ said Chelsea Supporters’ Trust board member Dan Silver. ‘He is 27, a brilliant footballer in his prime, a winner who has had unparalleled success at Manchester City and is going to be a great signing.

‘He’s also a fantastic role model not just for football but society. It’s great we have got someone of his calibre coming in. I’m very excited to see him pull on a Chelsea shirt.’

Fans turn on Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge while playing for Manchester City in 2018

Fans turn on Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge while playing for Manchester City in 2018 

England star Sterling will be made to feel right at home at the Bridge now, following his summer move from Manchester City.

Images of him have been prominent on the club’s social media channels – including a mock-up of the star on the stadium wall – which show the excitement.

And the hero’s welcome awaiting him when he plays at home for the first time as a Chelsea player against Tottenham, will be in stark contrast to one disgusting incident which overshadowed his December 2018 visit with Manchester City when he was racially abused by a Blues supporter.

A shocking, brazen, depressing episode that has naturally been revisited following his Chelsea switch but one that has also led to the latest example of the trademark mental resilience and resolve that has underpinned Sterling’s life and rise to stardom.

A mock-up of Sterling on the stadium wall shows the excitement at the club over his transfer

A mock-up of Sterling on the stadium wall shows the excitement at the club over his transfer

Chelsea’s first black player Paul Canoville, who suffered vile racist abuse from his own fans during his 1980s Blues career and is now a club ambassador and ‘activist’ fighting racism in football, told Sportsmail: ‘If that was me in the situation [I’d think] “wow, look at what I received when I played down at Stamford Bridge and now the club wants me. What do I do? What decision do I make?”

‘Mental resilience, of course, plays a major part. You’re strong to say “I’ve forgotten about that. That’s nothing. I’m stronger than that.”

‘He thought about football first. He has come to do a job at Chelsea. He’s a brilliant addition. I’m so glad he’s come here. A lot of fans are looking forward to him and looking to accept him. Nothing else.’

Sterling did indeed want to draw a line under what happened almost four years ago.

Paul Canoville, Chelsea's first black player, praised Sterling for his resilience

Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, praised Sterling for his resilience

The incident sparked all manner of negative emotions for right-minded members of the fanbase and the club.

Anger, disappointment, frustration and embarrassment among them, knowing the reputational damage done plus anti-discrimination work and progress undermined by the behaviour and abhorrent views of a few, despite the club’s swift response, thorough investigation and zero-tolerance punishment after the CPS concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

But it is also understood the incident was considered barely worthy of mention ahead of his transfer so focused was Sterling on looking forward rather than back.

The Londoner is described as someone with such an appetite for football that those who know him well would not be surprised if he keeps playing at whatever level he can even into his 40s.

Sterling wanted to draw a line under what happened and the incident was considered barely worthy of mention ahead of his transfer

Sterling wanted to draw a line under what happened and the incident was considered barely worthy of mention ahead of his transfer

Right now, in his peak years and happiest when playing, he was not getting enough opportunity to do so at City, especially in the glamour games.

Meanwhile, on the table was an offer from Chelsea to be a central figure in Thomas Tuchel’s plans, challenge for the biggest trophies while playing for another of England football’s elite clubs and managers.

The only influences on his decisions will be him and his family. He was not going to let one ignorant outsider interfere with his career. Had he done so, Sterling would have lost out on a huge opportunity.

Instead he now has the platform to fulfil his personal ambitions and potentially become the new darling of Stamford Bridge while his main abuser will remain on the outside looking in, banned for life while five others were also temporarily suspended.

‘Isn’t what Sterling has done the best way of burying it? To confront it, to face it. And when he is scoring winning goals for you now you’re going to celebrate him,’ one source close to Sterling said.

Sterling was hugely attracted by the offer of being a key figure in Thomas Tuchel's plans

Sterling was hugely attracted by the offer of being a key figure in Thomas Tuchel’s plans

‘It goes to show how mentally strong he is for him to experience what he has and still go there.’

He has also left a legacy with how he reacted at the time. The day after Sterling was targeted he released a watershed statement about the abuse he received and also accused sections of the media of ‘helping fuel racism and aggressive behaviour’ through their portrayal of young black players.

In a TV interview during Euro 2020, Sterling then described how he felt that what happened at Chelsea was the result of ‘something that has been building up over time,’ following how he had been made to appear during his career.

‘That I am spoilt this, I love money, I love bling, putting these perceptions in people’s brains,’ he said. ‘I felt that was something that can make people really dislike you.’

Enough was enough, he decided, and out came his statement.

Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s head of player engagement, remembers Sterling was abused just a week after a banana skin was thrown towards former Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and some were performing verbal gymnastics to avoid calling it racism.

‘People were trying to forget the fact that racism existed in our sport but you actually wanted people to understand the real impact and what has been happening for a continued period of time,’ Townsend said.

In a TV interview during Euro 2020, Sterling described how he felt that what happened at Chelsea was the result of something that had been building up over time

In a TV interview during Euro 2020, Sterling described how he felt that what happened at Chelsea was the result of something that had been building up over time

‘When Raheem’s statement landed it blew the whole topic wide open. Sent shockwaves through the industry. Football had never really seen a player taking a considered, measured approach because he didn’t just talk about what happened to him but also in a much wider context and how the media have fanned the flames by the certain narratives they have, particularly around how a black player should hold himself and then a white player and those comparisons, unfortunately, continue to exist.

‘Raheem made people stand up, take note and identify that they were happening.

‘What he said told players to be themselves and acknowledge that they have a voice. He’s empowered many, many more to do exactly the same thing and use their platforms for good.

‘When you’ve got one of England’s brightest talents talking in that way, almost taking not only the football industry on but the media industry as well and demanding change, then that has a significant impact.

‘We will go back in history, long after I’ve gone, and talk about what a significant moment it was when Raheem Sterling addressed what had happened to him the day before.’

Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick it Out, says Sterling made people more aware of racism in football and the impact of the media

Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick it Out, says Sterling made people more aware of racism in football and the impact of the media

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