If a guest edit by the England and Manchester City footballer Raheem Sterling was intended to cut through the surfeit of Covid-flavoured items that make up the Today programme in 2021, then the news agenda had other ideas. With panicked updates on PCR test shortages and reduced isolation times dominating, it was 40 minutes into Sterling’s special episode before we encountered any of his contributions.
Once they had begun, however, it was clear what Sterling’s key themes would be: social mobility, his efforts to inspire the next generation with his charitable foundation, and the impressive feats of the England Euro 2020 squad in the face of appalling racism. From Jamaica – where the 27-year-old was born – we heard about his efforts to help young people out of deprivation. The report was light on detail, but demonstrated Sterling’s importance in the world beyond the UK. Presenter Amol Rajan then spoke to football coach Clive Ellington, an early mentor to Sterling, who highlighted the need to consider the mental health and wellbeing of children who are being primed for sporting success. During the first two hours of the programme, there was much talk of overcoming barriers in society, especially educational ones, but no deeper discussion about why these barriers exist.
The story of Sterling’s mother, Nadine, who was forced to take her children to work with her as a hotel cleaner once they had moved to the UK, and bought them breakfast from a vending machine with coins they found in the course of her work, was framed by the programme as something of a tough motivational tale rather than the stark indictment of British society that it is. Chair of the education select committee and Conservative MP Robert Halfon appeared briefly to talk about injustice, speaking too about white working-class children, but it would be good to have heard some more radical brainstorming about what it might take to bridge the entrenched divides in our society, which affect the working classes en masse.
It was in the third hour, however, that Sterling’s takeover began to feel like just that, not least when he and England manager Gareth Southgate discussed building a relationship with the fans, and the importance of incorporating the diverse backgrounds of the players into the team itself. Sterling spoke confidently on subjects that felt relevant both to high-end athletes and ordinary folk: building mental resilience; not wishing your life away on social media; avoiding overthinking or becoming mired in negative comments. Southgate, meanwhile, described how he revisited his painful penalty miss at Euro 96 to create a supportive environment for the team he manages.
A discussion about their love of football eased into a conversation about society at large, and the value of footballers having their own projects and interests off the pitch. Next, Nick Robinson’s interview with Usain Bolt was occasionally fawning, but once again underscored the links between…