Former England coach Gary Neville says Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling came to him for help after what he felt were “vicious” attacks during Euro 2016.
Sterling, 24, posted on Instagram on Sunday saying newspapers are helping to “fuel racism” by the ways in which they portray young black footballers.
Sterling was allegedly racially abused during City’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea.
“The abuse he received, particularly in the media beyond that tournament, I’ve not seen it before,” said Neville.
Ex-Manchester United defender Neville, working on the England coaching staff at the time, recalled Sterling visiting him a few days before England’s last-16 defeat by Iceland at the Euros in France two years ago.
“He was getting absolutely battered going into that tournament, so much stick,” said Neville on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football.
“We were aware that the fans, the media were on to him. It continued into the tournament and to the stadiums – there were groans and little boos.
“It takes a lot for a player to see a coach, he walked in and started to download on me. ‘Why is this happening? Why was this so personal?’
“He accepted he’d be scrutinised as an England player but felt it was so vicious and that he felt so targeted that he didn’t know what to do about it.”
Neville said he had called Sterling to check the player was happy for him to recount the story on television.
Sterling received heavy criticism for his performances at Euro 2016, in a tournament that ended in the embarrassment of defeat to minnows Iceland and manager Roy Hodgson losing his job.
He was among England players booed off at half-time during a group match against Wales – and was substituted at the interval – and signed off an Instagram message following the team’s exit with #TheHatedOne.
There were reports of concerns for Sterling from within the England camp at the time, and Neville says “there was a tonal difference to the attacks he was getting” during the tournament.
“As a coach – on reflection – I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “I went into protection mode, coach mode – ‘Raheem you’re a great player and we love you to bits’.
“I tried to almost patch him up, to a point where you were never dealing with the underlying issue and maybe you couldn’t. Reflecting now, maybe even brushing it aside a little bit.
“He was willing to stand up and play but he’s been carrying this for years. He’s a tough lad to come through everything he’s come through and the scrutiny, to perform like he has done is a miracle almost.”
Racism ‘blatant’ in coverage
Sterling has frequently found himself at the centre of the media’s attention throughout his career, most recently for a tattoo of a rifle on his leg earlier this year.
He later defended the tattoo, saying it had a “deeper meaning” and referred to his late father, who was killed in Kingston, Jamaica.
That followed criticism for proposing to his girlfriend, purchasing clothes at high-street chain Primark and for buying his mother a house.
In his social post on Saturday, Sterling cited newspaper headlines about Manchester City team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden buying houses.
The headline referring to 21-year-old defender Adarabioyo – who is on loan at West Brom – focuses on how he spent £2.25m on a property “despite having never started a Premier League match”.
By contrast, midfielder Foden, 18, “buys a £2m home for his mum” and is later described as having “set up a future”.
The Professional Footballers’ Association has said negative press coverage of Sterling “emboldens racist rhetoric”.
And Neville argued coverage of Sterling has more than “undertones” of racism – “it’s blatant,” he said.
“I can imagine that when he was writing that message he’d have thought long and hard about what that brings him. It started a debate. What happens beyond today and this message?
“There’s been times where we’ve avoided taking on this subject but Raheem has forced it to be taken on.
“He was strong enough to come out of it, his mentality is incredible. He had is best ever season last year.
“Empowering other people to come out and us having the debate – it’s good we’re talking about it.”
‘Perception Sterling is more interested in cars and night clubs is garbage’
Jamie Carragher, also speaking on Sky Sports, played with Sterling at Liverpool, and believes the player’s decision to join Manchester City for £44m in 2015 has created an unfair perception of his character.
“The perception is of a young, flash, black kid from London. A lot of it comes from maybe moving from Liverpool – the perception that he’s more interested in cars, jewellery, night clubs than his actual football,” said Carragher.
“Anyone reading that, anyone writing that – it’s garbage. Raheem is a mouse. He wasn’t on nights out, he was humble and trained very well.
“He’s never been able to shake off that tag of being more interested in money and other things. He might buy a ring or a house for his mother and that’s always the story. I think it has racial undertones.”