At the age of 18, Jordon Ibe and Raheem Sterling were enjoying practically identical career trajectories.
The pair had both earned their stripes at lower league outfits – Ibe with Wycombe Wanderers and Sterling with QPR – before achieving a dream move to Premier League goliaths Liverpool.
Having spent a year with the Under-18 squad, the pair made their Liverpool debut at the tender age of 17, before both making a handful of appearances before their 18th birthday – and it’s here where the similarities end.
At just 25 years of age, Sterling has already made over 150 Premier League appearances, has two Premier League medals, has over 50 caps for England and is talked among some of the greatest wingers in the world. Meanwhile, at just a year Sterling’s junior, Ibe will be looking for a new cub this summer having failed to make the grade at Premier League strugglers Bournemouth.
Something went wrong. But what?
The first point to consider is that - while there are many similarities between Ibe and Sterling on paper - when you consider the pair’s stature, there are very few similarities. Sterling is sleight, nippy and nimble. His whole game is based on a low centre of gravity and having the ability to jink past players.
Ibe is far from this. The winger who arrived at Liverpool in 2012 was a very similar stature to Sterling, however, the winger who departed Anfield four years later was a beast of a man. For some unbeknown reason, Ibe gained an enormous amount of muscle mass in his time at Liverpool.
Whether that was on coaching team’s orders or not will probably never be known, but the winger lost all the explosiveness and agility that had turned him into one of the hottest prospects in England. He arrived at Anfield a pacey winger and left a Championship centre-back.
One thing which will always be true of football - and any profession for that matter - is that timing is key. It doesn’t matter how much talent, class or work ethic you have, if you’re not in the right place at the right time then it will probably never happen for you. For all Ibe may not have helped himself while at Liverpool, it can’t be denied that Sterling was dealt the much more favourable hand of the two.
The pair have identical birthdays just a year apart, but the 365 days between them is one the attributing factors to Sterling’s rise and Ibe’s demise.
Despite an impressive 2012/13 season, Sterling’s true breakthrough season was 2013/14 – a campaign which will live long in the memory of all Premier League football fans.
The Reds were on fire that season, in particular Luis Suárez. While it can’t be denied that the likes of Sterling and Daniel Sturridge were impressive supporting acts, Suárez played the lead role. The Uruguayan wizard managed to almost single-handedly carry a team containing Jon Flanagan, Simon Mignolet and Glen Johnson to Premier League glory. And Sterling undoubtably rode on the back of his brilliance.
At the same point in Ibe’s career, he was attempting to make waves in a side containing Ricky Lambert and a frankly disinterested Mario Balotelli – a side which would go on to scrape sixth position in the league. To say the playing fields were no longer level between the duo would be an understatement.
When Brendan Rodgers left Liverpool and he was replaced by Jürgen Klopp, Ibe had a fresh start under a new manager. Unfortunately, from Ibe’s point of view the Liverpool hierarchy couldn’t have appointed a less-suited boss.
Ibe is far from a Klopp-type player. The high press and intense work ethic out of possession is not something Ibe is known for, and Klopp soon replaced the youngster.
Sadio Mané was brought in by the German tactician the following summer, and a month later Ibe was sent packing to Bournemouth. His time as Liverpool’s number one winger had been brief; he had replaced and been replaced by two of the greatest wingers the Premier League has seen. Tough to make an impact on the Kop faithful with Sterling and Mané fresh in the memory.
Despite it being abundantly clear that Klopp didn’t see Ibe fitting into the system he was looking to bring to Anfield, the former Borussia Dortmund boss did include a buy-back clause in the deal with the Cherries. It may not have been Ibe’s time, but Klopp clearly felt there was talent in his boots and the door should not be completely closed on the youngster.
If the Liverpool boss was hoping for Ibe to knuckle down at the Vitality Stadium and prove to him he is good enough to cut it on Merseyside, he will be extremely disappointed with what has followed.
Ibe has made just two appearances for Eddie Howe’s side this season, scoring just three goals in nearly four years at the club. Misdemeanour after misdemeanour has tarnished Ibe’s time at the club even further, with driving bans and club fines for flouting lockdown rules just a few of the incidents which have marred his time on the south coast.
The Cherries announced recently that they would not be renewing Ibe’s contract this summer and the £16m man will be a free agent.
Ibe certainly didn’t have the rub of the green at times when at Liverpool, and perhaps he has been given poor advice at times, but when he arrived at Bournemouth he had a fresh start; a chance to prove he was good enough for a top six team.
Unfortunately, his conduct during his time at the Vitality suggests that even if he was afforded the chances Sterling was, he wouldn’t have made what his former teammate has of them. A future in the second tier of English football beckons for one of Liverpool’s once-brightest prospects.