Raheem Sterling has hailed Gareth Southgate for transforming the culture and atmosphere within the England squad but insisted their journey will not be complete unless it ends with a major tournament victory.
Speaking as part of his appearance as the guest editor on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sterling admitted that the players had felt “scarred” by their performances at Euro 2016, where they were defeated in the last-16 by Iceland, and felt a huge weight on their shoulders until Southgate helped the team come together.
England have since finished fourth at the 2018 World Cup and lost in the final of Euro 2020 earlier this year. However Sterling says he was left unsatisfied by the penalty defeat to Italy at the Euros, despite it being England’s best performance in a major tournament for 55 years.
“Everyone after the tournament was congratulating me. Congratulating me for what?” he said. “That is not what the team set out to do. Yes, it was a great journey. But at the same time we want to have our hands on a trophy. Because there is nothing more important or bigger than winning a major tournament with England.”
England will head to Qatar next year among the favourites to win the 2022 World Cup, and Sterling is confident the team can go all the way. “I think we have players at the right ages, challenging for the right things and have the mentality to be the best in their position,” he added.
Sterling also credited Southgate for changing the mood in the squad after he took over following the departure of Sam Allardyce in 2016.
“From when I first came into the squad to now you can see with conversations with the boys how enjoyable it is just to come,” said Sterling. “Everyone can’t wait. We are speaking on texts nowadays and I don’t think it was quite that way in previous years. Players felt a huge weight on their shoulders.
“The belief wasn’t there within the team after Euro 2016. But when Gareth came in, he really tried to make us understand that yes, that’s what the scarring is, but how are we going to change it? The team has grown as one. We want to do things as a collective.”
Southgate said the decision to take a knee before games to highlight racial injustice – despite sharp criticism from the prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel – had helped build unity within the England squad during Euro 2020.
But he said that coming together on racism had begun two years earlier after Danny Rose and Sterling suffered abuse in Montenegro in March 2019.
“This decision we took last year from a team perspective really started in Montenegro when Raheem and Danny suffered abuse,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it until very close to the end when Danny got booked and there was a reaction from the crowd. So when we got to the changing room I am having a go at Danny for being booked, and I had to apologise on the plane because it suddenly emerged that this had been going on during the game.
“I didn’t like the fact that the boys felt they couldn’t mention it in the changing room at half-time or report it,” added Southgate. “For me, it was like: ‘God this is awful. How is this an environment where our players are allowed to be abused on the pitch and they don’t even feel comfortable to report it or that anything is going to happen?’
“This had to be a team where we were united in how we saw it and we could send a message to young kids watching. I think the lads didn’t think how powerful that would be and they wanted to be judged on the football. I wanted to represent the players in the best way I could.”