Concerns have been raised among the England management staff over Raheem Sterling’s state of mind after the Manchester City winger’s confidence was apparently dented by criticism of his form from the stands and on social media.
Sterling, who endured a difficult first campaign at the Etihad Stadium after joining from Liverpool for £49m last summer, had performed brightly in England’s pre-tournament friendlies and started the national team’s first two games in Group B. There was initial promise to his performance against Russia only for his form to rather peter out in the second half. Indeed, he departed Marseille that night by posting a picture of the Stade Vélodrome with the message “#TheHatedOne” on Instagram.
His fitful display in the second fixture, against Wales in Lens, prompted loud boos from the stands at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis and Roy Hodgson opted to withdraw the 21-year-old, along with Harry Kane, at the interval. The winger, one of the few positives to have emerged from England’s three-game involvement at the 2014 World Cup finals, did not feature in the goalless draw with Slovakia on Monday, but it is understood he keeps regular tabs on social media and is well aware of the abuse to which he has been subjected. That has included one supporter setting up a JustGiving page to raise funds to buy Sterling a plane ticket home.
Although the player has developed a thick skin, not least while he agitated for a move away from Anfield, he has been taken aback by the level of criticism that has been flung his way – particularly online – over Euro 2016 and apparently feels he has been made a scapegoat for England’s shortcomings at the tournament.
The player has sought advice in the past from the England squad’s sports psychiatrist, Dr Steve Peters, having worked with him at Liverpool. The pair had spoken as recently as during the pre-finals friendlies and may now do so again, but there are concerns within the setup that Sterling’s confidence may have been badly eroded by his toils in France.
Hodgson had publicly backed the most expensive player in his squad after the draw with Russia, and following that post on Instagram, claiming Sterling’s “mental state is very good” and that he had been “as bright as a button in training”.
“It’s not nice to see people like [Sterling] being booed – it does hurt,” the assistant manager, Ray Lewington, said when asked about Sterling before the game against Slovakia. “People think they earn loads of money and have no feelings – it’s completely wrong. They are human beings, they feel things, particularly when they are young and trying to find their feet and it wasn’t nice.
“Young players do suffer for confidence sometimes and in the second game he looked as if he was slightly nervy and wasn’t doing things he was doing in the first game. But we have a lot of time for him, he’s a lovely kid. I don’t know how he gets this thing that people don’t like him. He’s a really smashing kid, actually quite shy, and we all love him really because he never gives anything less than 100%. So we’re going to try and look after him and try to ease him back, not rush him because we know there’s a really good player there.
“The one thing we want him to do is play his game, which is to get the ball and run with it, and he was a little bit reluctant to do that when we joined up in May. We’ve been talking to him about doing what he’s best at and running at people and I thought he had a really good game [against Russia].”
Sterling is unlikely to start the last-16 tie against Iceland in Nice on Monday, though Hodgson is expected to make a number of changes from the side that drew with Slovakia. Kane may return up front, along with Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli in midfield, and the Tottenham Hotspur full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are set to be restored. That would see Jack Wilshere, Ryan Bertrand, one of Jamie Vardy or Daniel Sturridge and the unfortunate Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson drop back to the bench.
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