England manager backs Raheem Sterling over tattoo controversy but admits winger has apologised to team-mates
Raheem Sterling's gun tattoo may have been met with understanding in the England ranks but manager Gareth Southgate has revealed the player felt the need to apologise to his team-mates after reporting late for the World Cup training camp.
The controversial body art on the Manchester City forward's right leg has become a national talking point over the past week but, while Southgate understands the concerns of anti-gun campaigners, he remains content that Sterling's motivations were both personal and non-malicious.
Yet after spending much of Friday afternoon speaking up for Sterling's character and offering a measured, temperate assessment of his status as a magnet for criticism, Southgate eventually opened up on a matter which did require his attention.
Sterling had been due to arrive at St George's Park last Tuesday - a day later than the bulk of the squad due to a personal commitment which delayed his post-season break in Jamaica.
A mix-up with the return leg - his flight stopped in Miami rather than continuing direct to England - meant he did not arrive until the following morning.
Sterling phoned ahead to warn of the delay and was invited for a walk by Southgate to discuss the matter further when he belatedly checked in at the national football centre.
Details of their conversation are sketchy but Southgate has made it clear he demands the highest professional standards and is unlikely to have let the 23-year-old leave without a stern reminder.
That done, Sterling requested the opportunity to say sorry to the squad for his tardiness.
"He was given off until the Tuesday night and he arrived on the Wednesday morning, so he was late," the manager said.
"There was a mix-up on flights and a connection. In fairness to him he wanted to apologise to the group, explained his commitment to the team, and it's done. That was accepted and everybody has moved on."
Whether any additional disciplinary measures were taken remains unclear, with Southgate adding only that the matter was handled internally.
Asked if he felt let down by Sterling, who has unintentionally dominated the agenda ahead of Saturday's Wembley friendly against Nigeria, Southgate struck a supportive tone.
"No, because it was not an intentional situation," he said.
"If someone doesn't want to be here and wants to be late, that's different. But I know how he was about it, so it was clear to me, his commitment and his focus.
"Managers want an easy life, really. They don't want to have (these) conversations and we know the world we live in. Nothing stays private. That's part of the long discussion we had when we went for a walk.
"I don't know why there are so many stories about him compared to others, but he is the type of player who can make a difference. There is a bigger expectation, a bigger focus on him.
"If you want to be a top player, you have to be able to handle that."
Southgate had earlier done his best to put to bed any remaining issues over Sterling's latest tattoo.
The winger lost his father at the age of two following a shooting and alluded in an Instagram post to a "deeper meaning" behind the ink.
"He understands how some people have perceived the tattoo but in my view a tattoo is like any work of art. It's a very individual meaning, the intent is all with the individual and the person," Southgate said.
"What has been clear by his own statement and his own experiences is that he is not someone who supports or wants to promote guns in the way that was perceived at first.
"I think the personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable.
"People often highlight the issues, the faults, of all of the squad, but for so many of them it's incredible they've got to the point they have.
"They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated, if you are focused. Raheem embodies that. Nothing is given to you in life, you have to fight all the way."