Raheem Sterling has had a more complicated week than you. Where you went from the heights of the tenth and final stamp on your Nero card to the pits of forgetting your Twitter password, he was forced to reckon with the glory of leading Liverpool to victory against so-bad-they-are-boring Newcastle before waking up to two national tabloid scandals. On the 11th of April a Snapchat leaked that showed him smoking from a shisha pipe, reported by the Mirror to be "as strong as 200 cigarettes". Then, on the 14th, the night after his team's win, a video was released through the Sun that appeared to show the footballer inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon. Both incidents have caused Sterling a great deal of trouble, prompting questions from his fans and bosses as to what should be done about his "mistakes". Clearly, the football community wants to know why Sterling, one of England's brightest talents, is so hell-bent on destruction.
Yet in the centre of this growing cyclone of disapproval, there is a strange truth at play. A very brief recap of Sterling's off-the-rails behaviour only serves to demonstrate that, well, he hasn't really lost it at all. In fact, as vices go, Sterling is actually pretty pedestrian. For any regular person, NOS and shisha represent little more than the first teenage stumbles out of sobriety. The mildly threatening substances that doe-eyed children in Topman shirts end up doing now that they took all the fun out of glue. The sort of things you did when you still weren't sure if people injected ecstasy. Something to try the weekend after you and your mates all tried (and failed) to play centurion. Sadly for him, Raheem Sterling lives in a peculiar world where Brendan Rodgers has to tell him off for things his mum probably doesn't even care about.
Sterling was born in 1994 and only turned 20 at the tail end of last year. His high profile career in football has made up the best part of the last quarter of his life, appearing as he did for the England U-16s in 2009 and signing for Benítez's Liverpool from QPR in 2010. While he's never quite reached Harry Kane levels of imposed promise, he still represents exactly the sort of "young hopeful" that English football fans so dearly cling to. Boyish faced and lithe on the pitch, he has risen to fame as an explosive, upright winger, one that has won the trust of both Brendan Rogers and Roy Hodgson. His status has come at a price, though: the scrutiny of English football fans desperately searching for the missing links in a failing international team, as well as Liverpool supporters existing in a post-Suarez universe, have made him a focal point of anxiety.
The tabloid response to the incidents has, of course, set the tone for how his behaviour is supposed to be interpreted. So they end up being shocking episodes of indulgence, childish misgivings from a super-earner who ought to be grateful enough to respect his position. In spite of experts citing the risks of inhaling nitrous as "relatively low", the papers have also been quick to describe the practice as "deadly". The furore actually manages to go one step beyond an over-reaction into the realms of complete imagination – essentially, they are making him sound cooler than he is. Sadly, what Sterling's actions more accurately represent are the splintered echoes of a lost youth. These are the mildly stupid things that you and I got to do in the garden of a schoolfriend's free house one sunny half-term. Raheem Sterling isn't spiralling out of control – he is being a delayed teenager.
You probably had your first "loony" at a house party. It most likely cost about £1.50 off some bigger boy you didn't know who was wearing a baseball cap. You'd have seen silver canisters that littered the floor as you clutched the pursed end of your bulging balloon and stumbled to a corner with one of your friends. You'd have gulped in, breathing in tandem with those around you, shooting them wrinkled knowing eyes until your lungs were at capacity and you gasped off the end. Then you laughed. Probably for about 20 seconds, the walls vaguely slid around while you fumbled your arm across the shoulder of whoever was sitting next to you. From this point, you checked your wallet, discovered you didn't have another £1.50, and slunk back to your Foster's. There have been deaths from Nitrous Oxide but unless you're inhaling huge amounts of it through a face-mask or from a massive tank, this tends to be about as intense as people's experiences get with the stuff.
As for shisha, to the best of my memory the only times I smoked it were in sticky floored bars that would let me in with my sub-par fake ID. Within weeks I had already realised that someone with my genuinely self-destructive tendencies was happier with cigarettes, but for others – largely rugby playing sixth-form boys – it seemed to offer a one-night stand with smoking. Much like a groom can enjoy a lap dance on his stag do, shisha allowed a few smoky plumes without the damaging "smoker" label. An infidelity made acceptable through novelty. Both indulgences represent the last boundary before danger. The safe edge. The chance to feel rebellious with zero repercussions: legally, socially and physically.
This is a far cry from the reality of some bad-boy players, who really have pushed themselves to and beyond the brink through substance abuse. George Best, a veritable mascot to romanticised alcoholism, perhaps best embodies the fall of the decadent footballer. Once the light of English football, scoring 179 goals in 490 appearances for Manchester United, Best's alcoholism was his well-documented downfall. Beyond the widely shared "squandered" quote, he regularly holed himself up in the Phene Arms in Chelsea; a pub that came to know him so well they lied about his whereabouts on the phone when wives and managers chased his location. They even laced his orange juice with vodka for him during his "dry spells". His substance addiction was a curse of magnitude, and certainly one that puts Sterling smashing a NOS balloon into new perspective.
But even then, outside of the tragedies, there are living, breathing, playing footballers getting up to more badass shit that Sterling. Saido Berahino drove 120 miles in his Range Rover after getting jacked up on hippy crack, while Jack Wilshere has been caught smoking more times than Wojciech Szczesny, who couldn't even make it out of the ground before sparking up, sparking a cig in the Southampton showers. Why, then, are we so concerned about Sterling? It must, and can only be, his youth. The worry that the shisha and NOS mark the gateway into the destruction of his boyish vivacity. Despite having been a professional footballer for half a decade, Sterling is still surely the only player in the Premier League who looks like Bambi whenever he scores a goal.
For there is a repressed teenager still living inside of Raheem Sterling. He buried it first when he began playing professional football aged 15, buried it deeper no doubt when his daughter Melody Rose was born before his 18th birthday, and then deeper again with international caps and high profile transfer talks. He will continue to force the fumbling, oafish sixth former inside of him deeper unless he is given these brief moments in which to be lame as fuck. You only need to watch this clip of an old Liverpool documentary to see the lippy schoolkid crying to escape. These are his windows of pure unbridled shittiness, the shadows of a parallel universe in which he isn't an internationally recognised winger and is instead hanging around with the lads outside GAME on a Saturday.
To chastise him for having a drag off a shisha, or sucking up some hippy crack, would be about as appropriate as launching a man-hunt for someone who shop-lifted a Mars bar. Raheem Sterling is neither a menace, nor a hero – neither a rascal, nor a lad. He has been caught, essentially, being a bit lame – giggling incoherently before most likely finishing off his Peroni and slipping off into the night for training in the morning. Then again, if you were 20 years old and in the position to turn down a £100,000-a-week contract – wouldn't you have something to laugh about, too?