England’s Gareth Southgate sticks up for Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling goes down inside the Nigeria penalty box, a dive which earned the England attacker a booking.  Photograph: Tim Goode/PA
Raheem Sterling goes down inside the Nigeria penalty box, a dive which earned the England attacker a booking. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA
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Gareth Southgate has called on his England squad to “protect each other” from outside pressures after his own decision to support, not sanction, Raheem Sterling.

Southgate was inclined to drop the Manchester City forward for yesterday’s friendly against Nigeria after he reported late for the World Cup training camp but chose not to once the player’s personal life became front-page news.

A gun tattoo on Sterling’s right leg became the subject of national debate over the past week, leading Southgate to throw a protective arm around the 23-year-old, who started the 2-1 win at Wembley. “I had a decision to make whether to play him after turning up late but, actually, that wasn’t a decision after he started to come under fire from every other direction,” said the manager, after goals by Gary Cahill and Harry Kane secured a positive result.

“It wasn’t about getting a response. The most important thing I do in the next six weeks is protect the players. They respect each other and understand how important it is they support and protect each other.

“The situation was one we didn’t want to happen. But this was the best way to deal with it in my opinion.”

Sterling checked in at St George’s Park the morning after his scheduled arrival, delayed by a connecting flight en route from Jamaica.

Southgate was on hand with a strong reminder of the player’s responsibilities and Sterling was prepared to sit out if asked.

“If I’d been left out, I wouldn’t have had any complaints,” the player told ITV in his first interview since joining up with England.

“He (Southgate) is honest, he tells you his exact mind. I completely understand where he’s coming from. I have to go out there and show him exactly what I’m capable of doing. People will see stuff in the wrong way... I’m just looking to get over it and keep concentrating on football. To come here, express my talent and try to win football matches for this country.

“It’s a distraction you don’t need, but it’s one of those I’ve learned to deal with now and block it out.”

Sterling tried desperately to make a positive impression against the Super Eagles, dinking one delicate shot wide, blasting another over on the turn and slamming a cross into the goalkeeper when he might have targeted the near post. Instead, he ended a trying week by being booked for diving. Shortly after Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi pulled one back for Nigeria he raced on to Jesse Lingard’s pass and tumbled early as he approached the goalkeeper.

Southgate, speaking before reviewing the incident, offered only a hazy initial take.

“I’ve not had a chance to see that back again. It looked a very tight call from where I was sitting because he was travelling at such speed,” he said. “I got the level I expected from Raheem, I thought he played well.”

Southgate’s wider impression of the match, which came 16 days before England’s Group G opener against Tunisia in Volgograd, was mixed. Enthused by what he saw in the first 45 minutes, he was concerned by a slow reaction when the visitors changed both personnel and system at the break.