In the shadow of Wembley Stadium, where Raheem Sterling bolstered his national hero status on Tuesday, his former school football coach was emotional. “I can’t help but start to well up,” said Paul Lawrence, 61, a coach at Ark Elvin Academy in Wembley, where the Manchester City and England forward first revealed his star quality as a 10-year-old.
“Last night I felt so excited. I watched it at home because I wanted to concentrate on it fully. Obviously, like any fan, I’m going to get carried away with the whole emotion of the game. But then the fact that Raheem scored again … That’s the third goal in four games. And to see England perform the way they did – it was amazing. A great, great game.”
Sterling scored the opening goal as England beat their fierce rivals Germany 2-0 in the European Championships on Tuesday night. They play their next game, a quarter-final against Ukraine, in Rome on Saturday.
The 133-metre Wembley arch looms over this neighbourhood. Sterling could see it and half of the 90,000-seat stadium from Neeld Crescent nearby, where he spent much of his childhood and from where he dreamed, he has previously said, of being “the king of Wembley one day”.
It’s a stone’s throw from the school, then called Copland community school, that he played for in years 7 and 8, in his first year, helping them get to two cup finals and claiming the man of the match award in one, where he scored a hat-trick.
Sterling was never “ordinary”, recalled Lawrence, who also coached him at QPR, where he was in the youth team. “He was outstanding. From day one I knew he was going to be a professional footballer. It was everything about him. He had the skill. He was really quick. He had the ability to hold off players that were a lot bigger than him. He was able to ride the tackles really well. And he was able to put up with getting stick from people, like getting kicked and chucked all over the place. He would just get up, dust himself down and get on with it. I still see those qualities now.”
Sterling, 26, is immensely proud of his Wembley roots. “I was from Wembley. I lived in Wembley. I lived on an estate for a month until my mum got a place in Wembley. From eight to 14, I lived in Wembley,” he once said. He has a tattoo of the stadium on his arm.
Not far from his home was a green – it’s still there – where he played. “You come out from the ground, you can look up the road and you can see Wembley Stadium straight up,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence has coached at the school for 29 years, as well as at QPR, Chelsea, Fulham and Charlton Athletic. He said his current pupils saw in Sterling an incredible role model. “He is one of their own. They are all from the same area, from the same background. They know he’s down to earth.”
Today Sterling lives in Cheshire with his fiancee, Paige Milian, and their sons, aged three and one. He also has a daughter from a previous relationship.
He takes time out to return to Ark Elvin regularly. On one occasion he arranged for 500 tickets to be given to staff, pupils and parents for an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. On another, he arrived straight from an England friendly at Southampton, “and the shirt he was wearing for England, he took it literally off his back and gave it to us, and signed it, ‘To my favourite school in the world, Ark Elvin Academy,’” said Lawrence.
“I am so proud of Raheem, to see him perform at Wembley,” he added. “It’s almost like his back garden for him. I know he feels at home there. He feels comfortable there. And he always seems to put in really good performances there.”
And Lawrence had some sage advice for his former prodigy before the Ukraine match. “ I would say, be even more fearless. Be even more brave. Be bold and take people on to try and create chances. The more he takes people on, the more it encourages the other players to try.
“I think it is going to be easier to do that in Rome than it would be at Wembley, because you haven’t got loads of fans screaming at you if you accidentally give the ball away.”