In a funny sort of way, we've been a little bit robbed here. Just as English football was settling in to watch it drag on all through summer, it's been done. A fee's been agreed, a medical is taking place. The adventures of Sterling the Red are over, and it's mid-July. They just don't make sagas like they used to.
It's tempting to look at the deal — a £49m fee, according to reports and pending a medical — and conclude that everybody has won and all must have prizes. City get a good player who might become a great one, Liverpool get a giant pile of cash, and Raheem Sterling gets the move he wanted. And that's fair enough, up to a point.
But while it might be a good price for Liverpool, it's not a good look. Losing your best player to Barcelona is one thing, as the vortex of El Clasico distorts the fabric of football and pulls in everything within range. Losing him to City, though, losing him within the same league ... that smacks of hierarchy. That smacks of feeder club. That smacks of Tottenham.
Ah, but he wasn't Liverpool's best player at all, of course. Indeed, given the number of "know your place, lad" finger-waggings directed his way over the last few months, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Sterling was some untested academy prospect, giving his ego full rein after a couple of substitute appearances and a goal in the League Cup. As opposed to, say, a player who ran giddy riot in one of the most exciting sides the Premier League has seen in recent years; a player who one year ago, per Brendan Rodgers, was "the best young player in European football"; a player who last season, even as he got shunted around a confused and confusing team, was only outscored by the bloke who takes the penalties. A player who is still only 20 years old.
Maybe he's not the best player in Liverpool's squad at this precise moment. Maybe your tastes run toward James Milner or Jordan Henderson. But he is — or was, pending a cough for the doctor and an X on the dotted line — their prized asset. The gem. If he becomes the player he was on course to become at the end of 2013-14, or anything close, then £49m will look like a perfectly reasonable amount of money.* If Liverpool have won, then it's very much in making the most of a bad situation.
*Well, no. It won't. It will never look anything less than ridiculous, no matter what happens. But within the totally unreasonable world of football as it is now, it will.
Have City won, then? He's certainly not going to be the best player in their squad, even if he is the one who commanded the highest fee. But while he may not be David Silva, he's certainly not Scott Sinclair, and there is a place for him in the squad and the team. Last season, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri made a total of 76 largely underwhelming appearances combined, and despite City outscoring Liverpool handily, Sterling outscored them both.
Based on what we know of Sterling's career so far, we can safely say that he enjoys and thrives playing in a very attacking team alongside several other world-class attackers, that he doesn't thrive to the same extent without those players, and he doesn't enjoy being played too far away from his best positions. Reductive, perhaps, but certainly a good case for his place at Manchester City, who can offer him Silva and Sergio Aguero as attacking colleagues and (for at least one more season) the endearingly buccaneering Manuel Pellegrini as manager. It's a lot of money, but it's for a player who's already good, who's generally expected to get better, and it comes in the wake of the relaxation of FFP. They've paid for it, but City have done well.
But the real winner, of course, is Sterling. He's got the move he wanted, and he's done so at minimal cost. He's lost the love of a fan base, he's lost the chance to become a Liverpool legend, and he's lost the respect of a fair chunk of the English media establishment. And since the first were frighteningly quick to turn on him, the second's capacity for generating the legendary is markedly diminished, and the third don't pick the City team and don't choose the England squad, there's not much to be mourned there.
Has he gambled his career away? Well, perhaps. It is, of course, a risk to move to any club, let alone a club like City, where first-team places are at a premium and the possibility of big-money replacements always looms large. But then, it's also a risk to stay at Liverpool: there's every chance that the alignment of circumstances that led to the 2013-14 title charge may not come round again, and that the door to the elite has been firmly slammed shut. Stick or twist — each is a risk.
Ultimately, the only real, certain and possibly significant cost has been the fetid spattering of racist drivel and incoherent threats thrown his way over the last couple of months. You'd hope, of course, that he's able to treat all that with the contempt it deserves (and, equally, that nobody actually tries to go through with anything), but it still stands as depressing evidence that simply being a high-profile person of colour is to risk, at every turn, being abused for the fact.
And that's without wondering about the implications of the fact that other footballers — most recently his Liverpool colleagues Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren — have managed to disrupt their way out of clubs without being told by the great and good not to get ideas above their station. Perhaps it's just that leaving Liverpool is a noisier business than leaving Southampton. Perhaps FSG have been revisiting the Manny Ramirez playbook. Or perhaps, deep down, Britain's fundamental response to seeing a young, black, working-class man taking his own advice is to tell him to sit back down, instruct him as to what's best for him, then make jokes about how many children he has.
Whatever his motives — presumably some combination of the financial, the footballing and the personal — he's come out ahead. He's got himself a pay raise; he's got himself a better crack at a title; he's got himself a return to the Champions League. And if there's any truth to the rumours that he can't stand Brendan Rodgers, he thinks red makes him look silly and he despises the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, well, he's got shut of all that too. Liverpool have got their remuneration, and City have got their player. But Sterling's got what he wanted: his future, on his terms. Good old-fashioned player power. Whatever happens, it's still the business.