Gareth Southgate (Getty)
London – Gareth Southgate claims Raheem Sterling justified his decision to protect the troubled England star despite his booking for diving against Nigeria.
Southgate kept faith with Sterling after a troubled week for the Manchester City winger and he responded with a mixed performance in Saturday’s 2-1 win in the World Cup warm-up at Wembley.
Sterling had been forced to apologise to his England team-mates after turning up to their training camp a day late following a flight mix-up on his way back from a holiday.
Adding to Sterling’s woes, the 23-year-old endured criticism for unveiling a new tattoo of an M16 assault rifle on his calf that he said was a tribute to his father, who was shot dead when the City star was a child.
Southgate had considered dropping Sterling for the Nigeria clash, but after what the England manager perceived as unfair criticism of the tattoo, he decided it was right to stand by his man.
Sterling partially repaid Southgate’s faith with a lively first-half display which included setting up Harry Kane for England’s second goal.
But that was overshadowed when he was booked for an embarrassing dive in a failed attempt to win a second-half penalty.
Southgate said he hadn’t clear seen the incident so he didn’t want to publicly reprimand Sterling.
“I’ve not had a chance to see that back again, it looked a very tight call from where I was sitting. He was travelling at such speed,” he said.
Asked whether he was relieved to see Sterling give a committed performance following his difficult week, Southgate said: “It wasn’t about getting a response, I knew with the form he was in he would play well.
“I had a decision about whether to play him when he turned up late, but once he started coming under fire from all directions it wasn’t a difficult decision.
“The most important job for me is to protect the players. The lateness was 10 days ago, how long do you go on with something?
“The situation was one we didn’t want to happen and one we don’t want to see again.
“But I think that was the best way to deal with it. You have to balance the message to the group.”
A contrite Sterling insisted he had no complaints about Southgate’s handling of the incidents.
“He is honest. I completely understand where he’s coming from. I have to go out there and show him what I’m capable of,” Sterling said.
“People will see stuff in the wrong way. It’s a distraction you don’t need, but it’s one of those I’ve learned to deal with now.”
England have only one more friendly against Costa Rica in Leeds on Thursday before they jet off to Russia and Southgate hinted the team that started so well against Nigeria – with Kane’s goal proceeded by a Gary Cahill header – could be the one that opens the World Cup.
Southgate’s men face Tunisia in their first group match on June 18.
“We were pretty clear for a fair while, but there is real competition for places in certain areas of the pitch. Everyone has to maintain their level,” he said.
“My experience of these tournaments is these things will evolve as the matches progress.
“It won’t necessarily be that the team that played today will play Tunisia but it won’t be far away.”
Southgate was especially encouraged by the solid showings from Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Sterling.
“We were really good with the ball. Dele and Jesse made some fantastic runs. That was as good a half as we have had,” Southgate said.
“Second half, it took us seven or eight minutes to come to terms with their change of formation.
“It was a really good test for us. It could have gone against us, but we got our composure back.
“We have to learn from it, because in a tournament that spell could be enough to put you out.”