Raheem Sterling has a catch in his throat as he is transported back to last December, to the emotion of an afternoon that might never leave him.
His eye contact is usually strong but not when talk turns to Damary Dawkins, the 13-year-old boy who lost his battle with acute lympho-blastic leukaemia in March.
Sterling is gazing into the distance and searching back to when they first met at University College Hospital in London. Their encounter and subsequent friendship had a profound effect.
Raheem Sterling (left) taking a picture with Damary Dawkins (right), the 13-year-old boy who lost his battle with acute lympho-blastic leukaemia in March
The Manchester City forward revealed a t-shirt to celebrate the youngster’s life after scoring for England against the Czech Republic five days after the young boy’s death
‘I get really emotional with things like that,’ Sterling says. ‘I don’t deal with it too well. It was a real eye-opener.
‘We always go on hospital visits and because you want to see as many kids as possible, you don’t get that same length of time.
‘This was a lot more of a sitdown, a talk and getting to know him and understanding him. I was looking at him and thinking about me at that age. How I would be. It touched me.’
Sterling was in London on a day off for a special visit, having heard about the youngster’s plight through a friend. He took the train down with his family and the pair played pool together, remaining in contact afterwards.
Damary was an engaging child who dreamed of becoming a professional footballer and had been in Crystal Palace’s development programme. There is a lack of Afro-Caribbean stem-cell donors and that is why Sterling reached out to his family.
Damary eventually found a donor after worldwide public appeals aided by Sterling, but he relapsed. The City forward revealed a T-shirt to celebrate the youngster’s life after scoring for England against the Czech Republic five days after the boy’s death. Sterling paid for the funeral.
The Manchester City forward is pictured playing a game of pool with his late friend Damary
‘It was about trying to bring awareness to these communities, my community,’ he says. ‘People are in need of help. Sometimes you’re sat at home and complaining about your Sky or internet not working and you realise there are people out there in a far worse predicament than you are.
‘When I saw him, how happy and outgoing he was – not shying away from anything or being down, just being himself – it made me appreciate my life and everything that was going on with me.
‘Give thanks to everything that’s been given to you. It’s just something that really touched me and I had to keep communicating with him. It wasn’t for long, but it was definitely something that will stay with me for a long time.’
Sterling has meant business on Manchester City’s pre-season jaunt to Asia.
Operating as a central striker in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, he scored twice against West Ham last week and once in a drubbing of Kitchee in Hong Kong. His only blemish was a penalty-miss against Wolves in Shanghai.
There is added certainty when he bursts through on goal, something more definitive. Pep Guardiola has perfected the ‘little details’ and Sterling has benefited from simplifying his game.
Thirty-one goals for club and country last season clearly weren’t enough for a superstar who has very real ambitions of winning the Ballon d’Or.
Sterling is benefiting from one-on-one tuition from Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola
Sterling has scored three goals during City’s pre-season – including this one against Kitchee
The 24-year-old is desperate for an improvement on those numbers but, interestingly, has not placed great importance on City lifting the European Cup. For him, the Premier League remains the Holy Grail and defending that is a superior achievement to any Champions League glory.
‘I was really happy for Liverpool, happy for some of the players I know to lift the Champions League,’ he says.
‘What we’ve done last season – every day, week in, week out – was exceptional. The Champions League is massive for us as a club but our most important thing is winning the Premier League. That’s our main objective going into this season.
‘The Premier League is your bread and butter. The Champions League is the nicer-looking one, the most prestigious as people say, but every weekend you put in a shift. You’re going to tough places… you’re off to Crystal Palace, Burnley, it’s tough, you know. You put so much time into it. That’s why we cherish it.
‘It’ll be harder than last season. To do this three times in a row is a massive challenge for us.
‘Liverpool, all these big clubs, will try to take titles off us. But there isn’t any player here who thinks they’re at their best. There are no egos in our changing room, no player who thinks he’s Pele or Maradona.’
Sterling would rather win the Premier League than the Champions League next season
One imagines Guardiola would not allow it anyway. The TV cameras zoomed in on the manager and Sterling on the Wembley turf moments after City had completed an unprecedented domestic treble in May.
Sterling had scored twice in a one-sided final against Watford, but Guardiola saw room for tweaks. The conversation was surprisingly animated, even for Guardiola. There have been plenty during their three years together.
‘Ah, I don’t know how to explain it… you see clips of him talking to you but it’s not like that every day!’ says Sterling.
‘It’s one incident where he’s speaking to me. He talks to us as a group. You learn. If you don’t learn, you don’t play.
‘It’s not like he’s sat there in a room with a pen and paper writing things down on what I should do.
‘People will be judging me from now on, so every season I have to get better. If you don’t want to improve yourself then there is nothing Pep can do to help.
The England international is happy to be learning his trade under the energetic Guardiola
‘He sets such high standards and it rubs off. That has improved me the most: the standards he sets. It makes sure I don’t fall from mine.’
The importance of self-critiquing is something Guardiola has impressed on Sterling and he is happy to help others, too.
He sees a lot of himself in England team-mate Jadon Sancho: a flamboyant winger, black, from London. Sterling knows what that can mean for a teenager thrust into the spotlight.
He sends Sancho subtle messages of advice about facets of the Borussia Dortmund youngster’s life. ‘Even when I was getting a lot of negative stuff, I was never going to sit there and be someone I’m not,’ Sterling says.
‘I talk how I talk. I’d like people to accept me for who I am and they do now. I’m really grateful.
‘If there is anything that I feel could put Jadon in a bad light, I make sure I pull him up on it. He’s a good kid. He’s doing a lot more off the field than I was at that age in terms of his preparation work.
‘I’m quite close with Ian Poveda (teenage Colombian midfielder) at City. It’s a similar story: from London, came up north. He’s always sat next to me on the coach. He’s a bit annoying at times, I tell him that every day!
‘He’s my little friend, I try to give him advice. I let him have a feel for things himself but if I do see something I’ll go over.’
Sterling has been mentoring England team-mate Jadon Sancho due to their similar upbringing
Sterling has a supremely relaxed aura. He discusses how, when football goes well, life goes well. Given he and City have barely taken a wrong step over the past two years, it is safe to assume this is the happiest he has ever been.
He and fiancee Paige Milian and their children mill untroubled around Knutsford, Cheshire, just south of Manchester and spend summers holidaying in Miami or Jamaica, where Sterling was born. He was only two when his father was murdered there.
Keeping away from mates within the game also helps him keep a lower profile and Sterling only really expects to retain a handful of footballing friendships after his career.
Sterling enjoys keeping a low profile with Paige Milian when he switches off from football
‘At the end of a day, I don’t want to be talking about football when I get home. I just want to chill out,’ he says.
‘If you’re with three or four other footballers, there’s more attention than you need.
‘It’s not to say that there are people who I don’t like or get on with, but when you’re finished playing football you just want to get back to your normal life.
‘It’s like finishing work. I can’t have a glass of wine every night but you’ve got to work around it.
‘Manchester is a lovely place. I love the little villages. I can go out, grab a bit of lunch and chill with my family without needing the city centre. We’re really happy up there. From being a kid, I always wanted to play abroad, but I’m happy at Manchester City.’