As part of his appearance as guest editor on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling spoke to his England head coach Gareth Southgate.
They discussed the togetherness in the England camp, the Euro 2020 tournament, taking a knee, the 2022 World Cup and Sterling’s work with his foundation.
As part of the programme, Sterling’s mum Nadine spoke about his upbringing – and her pride for her son’s “dream come true”.
Listen to the full interview from 08:15 GMT on Wednesday, 29 December or listen again on BBC Sounds.
England team has ‘grown as one’ under Southgate
Southgate became England manager in September 2016, leading them to fourth place at the 2018 World Cup – their first semi-final appearance at the tournament for 28 years.
In July, he guided England to their best performance at a men’s major tournament for 55 years, as they reached the final of Euro 2020, a competition that had been delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sterling credited Southgate with “bringing the team together” and making the environment “enjoyable to come into”.
“We know that when you’re as free in your head as you can be and can express yourself, that’s when we see the best versions of you,” Southgate said.
England’s performances at the past two major tournaments have been a significant improvement on Euro 2016, when they suffered a shock last-16 exit against Iceland in Nice.
Sterling added: “After the Euros in France, the team came out of that with really bad press. It was a really difficult period over the next couple of years. The belief wasn’t there within the team.
“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. The one thing about this team is, when you come in the building, we are so integrated.”
After the Euro 2020 final defeat by Italy on penalties, “unforgivable” racist abuse was aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who were targeted following their spot-kick misses.
In the build-up to Euro 2020 and throughout the tournament, the England squad chose to take a knee before games to highlight racial injustice – despite some criticism.
“This had to be a team that were united on how we saw it,” Southgate said.
“The lads didn’t realise how powerful that would be, going into the tournament, and they wanted to be judged on the football. I wanted to represent the players in the best way I could really.”
‘We want our hands on a trophy’
England were unbeaten in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, finishing six points ahead of play-off bound Poland, with eight wins from 10 matches.
Following the success at Euro 2020, Sterling said there is “nothing more important” than winning a major tournament with England.
“I don’t think you could beat that for us as players,” he said.
“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.
“We have a wonderful manager here that tries to give us the environment to perform at the highest level.”
‘I wanted to be able to help at least one person’
Off the pitch, the Raheem Sterling Foundation has created “a real sense of joy and meaningfulness”, the forward says.
The foundation, launched in November, focuses on improving social mobility and furthering education for young people in London, Manchester and Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, where Sterling was born and lived before moving to London at the age of five.
“The biggest thing I wanted to do, other than football, was to think about the 15-year-old version of myself that went through a lot of difficulties,” he said.
“Society can sometimes be brutal. I just wanted to help at least one person.
“I’m giving back, I’m helping out. I always say it’s all well and good that I’ve been able to do a lot with myself at 27, but there’s the next generation after us and I always think of 15-year-old me at QPR, about to go to Liverpool, there were a lot of difficult times.
“With the platform I and many footballers have, it’s really important we get in touch with our human side and I wanted to help that next Raheem Sterling.”
Following his high-profile move to Manchester City from Liverpool in 2015, Sterling was under more intense scrutiny from the UK media – and in 2018 the forward said newspapers were helping to “fuel racism” by the ways in which they portray young black footballers.
“I was a young boy and I felt targeted,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today presenter Nick Robinson.
“I think it happens a lot when you’re the new kid in town. I hold my hands up, there were probably things I shouldn’t have been doing, as any 17 or 18-year-old kid would be doing, but I’ve matured over time and football has been a lifesaver to me.”
It’s an opinion echoed by Southgate who said the 27-year-old recognises the “power of voice” and when to use it.
“Sometimes there’s a perception that footballers don’t do anything, don’t give back,” Southgate said.
“I often hear people say ‘just focus on the football’. When I was playing, there was a feeling that if you did anything that wasn’t football, then your football would suffer and you weren’t focused enough.
“I feel differently to that. Having something to take our mind off football is a good thing.”
Mother’s pride at Sterling’s ‘dream come true’
Sterling’s mother Nadine told Radio 4 of her pride for her son and his achievements so far.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” she said.
Sterling and his sister would often help Nadine clean at a hotel where she worked. His sister would also take him to training when Nadine couldn’t.
Nadine added: “When I was cleaning at the hotel and had no other choice but to take them as I couldn’t leave them at home, they came and helped. They’re helpful kids, it’s a team.
“If Raheem ever had any money, he’d always come straight to me and get a treat from the vending machine.”