y daughter is a bit cheeky. My mum warned me this was gonna happen. Around six years old they start developing a little attitude, you know? So the other day, my daughter’s running round the house singing a little song. And her dad had just won the league with City. Just got 100 points in the league, actually. Does she care?
Haaaaa! Mate, she don’t give two Scooby-Doos about Manchester City. She’s Liverpool through and through.
So she’s running through the halls — and I swear to God she runs exactly like her dad. Chest puffed way out, back arched, hand flapping about a bit. She’s running through the halls like Raheem Sterling, and you know what she’s singing?
Mo Salah! Mo Salah! Mo Salah!
Runnin’ down the wing!
Salahhhhh la la la la la la la!
Can you believe that? Cold-blooded, mate.
She’s just like me when I was a kid. Just like me, I swear. If she doesn’t know you well, she’s not gonna say a word to you. Not one word. She’s got to trust you first. That’s something that’s just rooted in our family.
So can I trust you? Can I tell you my story, and will you really listen? If you read certain papers, maybe you already think you know me. Maybe you think you know my story, and what I care about. But do you really?
When I was two years old, my father was murdered. That shaped my entire life. Not long after that, my mum made the decision to leave me and my sister in Jamaica and go to England so she could get her degree and give us a better life. For a few years, we lived with our grandmother in Kingston, and I remember watching the other kids with their mums and just feeling really jealous. I didn’t fully understand what my mum was doing for us. I just knew that she was gone. My grandma was amazing, but everybody wants their mum at that age.
Thank God I had football. I remember when it used to rain, all the kids would run outside and play football in the puddles, just splashing around, having the best time. That’s the image that flashes in my mind when I think about the atmosphere of Jamaica. When it rains, nobody hides inside. You just go out and enjoy it. The other thing I remember is begging my grandmother for money to go and get a grapenut ice cream.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Listen, the rest of the world needs to get put on to grapenut. You really don’t know what you’re missing. For some reason, I’ve never seen it in England. But it’s the greatest thing ever. This guy used to run a little shop out of his house, so you’d run over after playing football all day in the street and you’d knock on the door and then, literally, his head would just pop out this little window, like, “Oi, what you need?”
That’s Jamaica, mate. People just hustling, trying to do whatever they can with the circumstances they’ve been dealt. You could get everything from rice to ice cream at his little shop.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mum was hustling in her own way, trying to make a better life for us. When I was five years old, we moved to London to be with her, and that was kind of a tough time because the culture was very different from what I was used to and we didn’t have much money. My mum always made sure we had what we needed, but let’s just say it wasn’t The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, know what I mean?
My mum was working as a cleaner at some hotels to make extra money so she could pay for her degree. I’ll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping her clean the toilets at the hotel in Stonebridge. I’d be arguing with my sister, like, “No! No! You got the toilets this time. I got the bed sheets.”
The only good part about it was that my mum would let us pick anything we wanted from the vending machine when we finished. So you know I was going straight for the Bounty bar every time.
My family, we were really tight. We had to be. All we had was us, you know? I’d always be breaking everything in the house, so I’d say, “Mum! Mum! Can I go outside? Can I go outside?”
And she’d always say, “You can go outside, but don’t leave the house.”
That used to be like her little Jedi mind trick on me. That’s a classic bit of Mum banter.
But I actually feel kind of bad looking back on it, because when I started going to primary school I was so naughty. I was probably driving my mum mental. It wasn’t that I was bad bad, I just didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to sit still and hear what the teacher was saying, mate! What are we talking about today ― subtraction? Come on. Not having that. I’d be staring at the clock dreaming of break time. Eat a bit of food, then head straight outside. Running about in the mud, pretending I’m Ronaldinho. That’s all I cared about.
I was so naughty that they kicked me out of primary school.
Well, actually, that’s not totally true. Technically, they didn’t kick me out. They just told my mum that I needed to be in an environment with more attention. They put your man in a little classroom with six kids and three teachers! Not joking. There was nowhere to hide.
The worst part was the bus used to pick us up and drop us off every day. So I’ll never forget, I was riding the bus one day, looking out the window, and I saw all these other girls and boys walking to school on their own, having a laugh. And that really hit me, and I thought, I want to do that. I want to be like everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just quiet.
I just didn’t like to listen to anyone but my mum. That was my problem.
So I got on my best behavior straight away, and after about a year, I moved back to the big school. But if I really think hard about it, the moment my life changed was when I met a guy named Clive Ellington. He used to mentor the kids in our neighborhood who didn’t have their fathers around. On the weekend, he’d take us on little trips around London and show us a different side of life. Sometimes we’d just go play snooker. Basically, anything that wasn’t our day-to-day. He genuinely cared about us. So one day he sat me down and he said, “Raheem, what do you love to do?”
Simple, simple question, right? But I never really thought about it like that. At that point, I was just playing football in the street, biking around with my friends, being a kid.
I said, “I love playing football.”
He said, “Well, I got a little Sunday League team. Why don’t you come out and play with us?”
And that was it. That moment changed my life. From that day, it was football, football, football. Obsessed. Totally obsessed. When I was 10 or 11, I was getting scouted by some big clubs in London. Fulham wanted me. Arsenal wanted me. And when Arsenal want you, of course you’re thinking you gotta go there. Biggest club in London, you know? So I’m running around telling my mates, “I’m off to the Arsenal!”
But my Mum is a proper warrior. She knows how to make it in this world. She’s probably the most streetwise person I know. She sat me down one day, and she said, “Look, I love you. But I don’t feel you should go to Arsenal.”
I said, “Ehhhh?”
She said, “If you go there, there’s going to be 50 players who are just as good as you. You’ll just be a number. You need to go somewhere where you can work your way up.”
She convinced me to go to QPR, and it was probably the best decision I ever made. At QPR, they didn’t let me slip up. But it was quite hard for my family, because my mum would never let me go to training alone. And she always had to work, so my sister would have to take me all the way out to Heathrow.
Three busses. The 18 to the 182 to the 140. The red double-deckers with the blue wool ’80s vibe on the seats. Spent ages on those. We’d leave at 3:15 and get home at 11 p.m. Every. Single. Day. She’d sit upstairs in the little cafe and chill until I was done with training. Imagine being 17 years old and doing that for your little brother. And I never once heard her say, “Nah, I don’t wanna take him.”
At the time, I didn’t understand how much she was sacrificing. Her and my mum got me here. My whole family played a massive part in my life. Without them, you wouldn’t even know me.
And you know what’s crazy?
I grew up in the shadow of my dream. Literally. I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden. One day, I walked outside and I saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain. I used to kick about in this green right by my house, and I could take a shot on goal and then turn round to celebrate and the Wembley arch would literally be right above my head. It was like you were there.
I was really like, I can play there. I can do it.
Not everybody believed. I had a teacher when I was 14, and to be fair I was probably messing about, not really listening. So she said, “Raheem! What’s wrong with you? Do you think football is going to be your end goal? Do you know how many millions of kids want to be footballers?”
And I thought, O.K., fair enough, I’ve heard those odds before.
But then she said, “What makes you so special?”
And that line really stuck with me.
In my head, I literally went, “Ehhhh? What makes me so special? O.K.! We’ll see.”
Two months later, I got called up to the England U-16s, and I set up two goals against Northern Ireland. It was all on the television and everything. That was a big moment for me. I went back to school on Monday, and all of a sudden that teacher was my best friend in the world.
Funny how that works.
But the real turning point came when I was 15. Liverpool wanted me, but it was three hours away from home. And I’ll never forget sitting my mum down and telling her that I wanted to go. I love all my friends from my neighborhood. They’re still my best friends in the world. But at that time, there was a lot of crime and stabbings going on, and I felt like Liverpool was a chance for me to go away and just focus on football.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
In my head, I was like, O.K., this is it. My mum sacrificed her life to get me here. My sister sacrificed her life to get me here. I’m here. Let’s go.
For two years, I went ghost. You can ask my friends. When we had a day off, I’d come back to London on the train for a day to see my mum, and then it was back to Liverpool. I was shut down from the world. Just building myself up as a footballer. The club had me living with this older couple. They were in their 70s, and they really treated me like their own grandson. Every morning, I’d come down, and they’d have a bacon butty waiting for me. It was unbelievable. Beautiful garden out back. All these flowers, trees. It was like a different world.
My mum, though, she would still be calling me every morning. “Raheem! Did you say your prayers today? Have you given thanks for waking up today?”
I’m like, “Mum! Yes, I have Mum!”
That was probably the most important time of my life. My whole mission was to get a proper contract so that my mother and sister didn’t have to stress anymore. The day that I bought my mum a house, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been.
I can remember when I was a kid, there was like three or four times when I was on the bus home from training and my mum would text me a new address.
And she would say, “This is where we’re living now.”
There was a two-year period where we were moving all the time, because we couldn’t afford the rent. At the time, I barely thought about it. It was just normal to me. But now I understand what it must have been like for her, going through that struggle.
You know … it’s sad that I even have to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. There’s a perception in certain parts of the media that I love “bling.” I love diamonds. I love to show off. I really don’t understand where that comes from. Especially when I bought my mum a house, it was unbelievable what some people were writing. I think it’s really sad that people do that. They hate what they don’t even know.
A few years ago, I would let it get to me. I’d be saying to my mum, “Why are they picking on me?”
But now, as long as my mum and my sister and my kids don’t have any stress, I’m good.
If people want to write about my mum’s bathroom in her house, all I have to tell you is that 15 years ago, we were cleaning toilets in Stonebridge and getting breakfast out of the vending machine. If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s my mum. She came to this country with nothing and put herself through school cleaning bathrooms and changing bed sheets, and now she’s the director of a nursing home.
And her son plays for England.
David Ramos/FIFA/Getty Images
You know what’s so mind-blowing to me? I got called up for England at 17. The first time I ever got to play at Wembley was in a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, and the most surreal part was sitting in the bus on the way to the stadium, just looking out the window as we’re driving down Harrow Road, thinking to myself …
That’s the house where my friend used to live.
That’s the parking lot where we used to roller skate.
That’s the corner where we used to try to talk to girls.
That’s the green where I used to dream that all of this was gonna happen.
If you grew up the same way I grew up, don’t listen to what certain tabloids want to tell you. They just want to steal your joy. They just want to pull you down.
I’m telling you right now …
England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.