THE nation fell back in love with the England team at the World Cup in Russia.
Yet despite being part of the adventure which led to the semi-finals in 2018, one player was not quite feeling all the affection when returning home.
Raheem Sterling continued his rise to national hero on MondayCredit: Getty Images – Getty
Raheem Sterling was booed by England fans at a friendly in Dublin in 2015 — before claiming he was ‘the hated one’ after yet more stick from supporters following the 1-1 draw with Russia at Euro 2016.
Two years later, his relationship with the country’s fans was still an uneasy one.
His performances for boss Gareth Southgate during the 2018 tournament had been underwhelming.
Then it all changed on the red-letter day of October 15 that year.
After three years without scoring for England — and just two goals in 45 international appearances — Sterling hit the opener against Spain in a Nations League match in Seville.
After ending his long drought by hammering Marcus Rashford’s pass into the top left-hand corner, he scored a second 22 minutes later to put England 3-0 ahead in an eventual 3-2 win.
Sterling has subsequently emerged as a powerhouse of this team, with his goals just as crucial as skipper Harry Kane’s.
The Manchester City forward has now scored 15 in his last 20 Three Lions appearances.
Crucially, three of those have come at Wembley during Euro 2020.
Southgate admitted: “Raheem was probably the only one of the players to come back from the World Cup with a different feeling — and I talked to him at length about that.
“Seville was a real lift-off moment for him. You could see it. He almost jumped into the second tier of the stadium if you look at the celebration that night of his goal.
“I really feel that was a significant moment for him. Of course he had been scoring for his club — but he had not been able to translate that.
“Now I think he feels happy in our environment, feels he can be himself, and knows the respect we have for him. His performances in every game this tournament has seen him become a huge threat to every opponent.
“He is a fighter. He has got an incredible resilience and hunger. He has developed over the last couple of years this real hunger to score.
“Even in the games earlier in the tournament where the ball has flashed across the box, he was there between the posts.
Sterling called himself the ‘Hated One’ after being booed in 2015Credit: AFP
The winger is now a leading light on and off the pitchCredit: Getty
“He is finding himself in these areas and his drive is fantastic. We know the journey he has been on with England — and I am so happy for him to be able to deliver the performances he has.”
Sterling suffered an indifferent end to the season under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
And there were some question marks over whether he should start at the Euros.
But he is England’s most-capped current player (65) for good reason. He has been — and will now continue to be — one of the first names on Southgate’s team sheet.
During these four games, even when not at his best, he has remained patient — with Tuesday’s 2-0 last-16 win over Germany a good example.
Even though he faded in the game, Sterling started and finished the move which put England 1-0 up. Southgate said: “To deliver the goals at Wembley will have been really special for him.
“That goals return is absolutely incredible.”
What has been missing, this applies to the entire team, is consistently good service for Kane.
It must improve against Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night.
Kane has not been at his best during this tournament — and his lack of sharpness was shown when he failed to score after almost rounding Manuel Neuer before being denied by Mats Hummels.
But when Jack Grealish delivered the perfect cross into the area, it was met by the head of Kane for 2-0.
Luke Shaw also played a part in both goals and if Southgate sticks with wing-backs against Ukraine — although he might revert to a back four — the delivery must improve yet further.
However Southgate was very pleased with how his team adjusted to the three-man defence — despite a nervous start against the Germans.
He was also impressed with how Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips got to grips with the opposition in midfield.
The two midfielders’ energy and athleticism were really important.
Southgate added: “The team settled formation-wise really well.
“We conceded possession cheaply and made unforced errors on three or four occasions in the first seven or eight minutes. That was maybe the occasion and taking a little bit of time to soak in the atmosphere.
“The two midfielders are both very inexperienced internationally — and do not have any European experience club-wise either. But their energy and athleticism were really important.”
Southgate will expect more of the same in Rome from his defence and midfield. Equally, he will expect star names such as Kane and Sterling to run rings around the opposition.
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