"Raheem is not fit," said the England manager ahead of the first Euro 2024 qualifiers. "I would have selected him if he was." It was a firm response from Southgate to questions that implied that Sterling might no longer be a shoo-in for international call-ups.
In the same position, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka are having their best seasons as professionals, Jack Grealish is a regular under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Phil Foden is back in form. Amid all that, Southgate still wanted to pick Sterling. It's likely to be the case again when Southgate chooses his next England squad for Euro qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia in June.
Now 28 and more than 10 years on from his senior debut, it's easy to forget what Sterling has achieved. He's approaching 500 club games and has passed 150 goals. He's won 10 trophies, including four Premier League titles, and has been capped by England 82 times.
After making his England debut as a 17-year-old, he's one of only two players to be picked for World Cups in 2014, 2018 and 2022 alongside Jordan Henderson. He will only be 31 by the time the next one kicks off in the United States, Mexico and Canada in 2026.
Sources close to the England camp believe Sterling has been key to the turnaround of the national team under Southgate. After reaching two tournament semifinals in the ensuing 50 years after winning the World Cup in 1966, England under Southgate made it to the past four of the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and the final of the European Championship in 2021. Southgate credits his leadership group of experienced internationals -- of which Sterling is one -- for helping to change the atmosphere and morale around camps.
Club allegiances, a major problem for England managers during the late-'90s and early-2000s, have been put aside while Sterling in particular has advocated for emerging young talent, also going out of his way to make sure debutants feel at home when walking into St. George's Park. Crucially, players have wanted to turn up.
Southgate, according to sources, earmarked Sterling for a key role in the dressing room when he took over as England boss in 2016, having been impressed with his leadership during their spell together with the under-21s. When Southgate was deliberating his future in the wake of the World Cup quarterfinal exit to France in December, Sterling was one of the senior players he consulted.
There is still a sense among many of the coaches and managers who have worked with Sterling that he remains underrated. He's played for three of English football's biggest clubs in Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. When he was moving between the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge in the summer, there was significant interest from some of Europe's top clubs, including Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.
Sterling joined Chelsea after Thomas Tuchel made the forward his top priority, and in transfer meetings with new owner Todd Boehly, the German coach made the point that a player like Sterling would have made the difference in a series of tight finals -- the 2021 League Cup, the 2022 League Cup and 2022 FA Cup -- all of which Chelsea lost.
In five seasons between 2017 and 2022, Sterling scored 78 Premier League goals in 161 appearances -- a rate of almost a goal every other game -- as Manchester City won the title four times. However, it doesn't help the feeling that Sterling's form during City's domination of the division was underappreciated given that he was only named in the PFA team of the year once, at the end of the 2018-19 campaign. The following season he reached 20 Premier League goals and 31 in all competitions.
Sterling is still finding his feet at Chelsea, having joined with the club in a state of flux. Tuchel was sacked in September and replaced with Graham Potter, who has tried a number of different systems in an effort to cope with an extensive injury list and an unprecedented turnover of players. Sterling, alone, has been asked to play in six different positions.
There's an acceptance around Stamford Bridge that some stability beyond this season will help, although when Potter and Chelsea needed a goal to turn the Champions League last-16 second leg against Borussia Dortmund, it was no surprise that it came from Sterling. Wayne Rooney is the only Englishman to score more than his 27 Champions League goals.
"Raheem has come into a new team that has lost some key players over the summer, brought some new ones in, and then the manager has changed," Potter said in December. "It is my responsibility to help the team function better so that he can play better, because he has got quality and is a top player."
It's an opinion shared by Guardiola and Tuchel -- two of the best managers in the world -- and also by Southgate as he begins his preparations for another crack at a major tournament at the Euros in Germany in 2024. Injury has denied Sterling the chance to be there at the start of the campaign, but if Southgate has his way, he'll be there at the business end.