England boss admits to Raheem Sterling concerns as Rio Ferdinand insists criticism is not racially motivated
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 Saturday'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 from 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," he told ITV in his first interview since joining up with the Three Lions.
"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 and 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."
Meanwhile, former England defender Rio Ferdinand has insisted the criticism flowing in Sterling's direction should not be linked to the colour of his skin, as he insists the national team often has a scapegoat that attracts criticism.
"I don’t think it comes down to colour," stated Ferdinand. "There’s always going to be one scapegoat and people then pick out that particular scapegoat and abuse him.
"David Beckham had it once and Phil Neville also had it. I think some people just pick at things. When something happens in a tournament, it just triggers people into saying, ‘He’s the guy’.
"What I love about Raheem is that he has thick skin. He’s a hard worker. He’s someone who wants to do well and he’s proven that he’s a learner."