Gary Neville believes Raheem Sterling has been subjected to years of “vicious”, racially-motivated critcism.
Manchester City and England forward Sterling was taunted by Chelsea fans during Saturday’s Premier League game at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea have suspended four fans while they continue their investigations into alleged racist abuse and Neville said it was “a miracle almost” that Sterling had been able to deal with the vitriol.
Neville revealed Sterling had approached him for advice when the former was an England coach under Roy Hodgson during Euro 2016.
“He came to see me one-on-one in 2016, I think it was three or four days before the Iceland game,” Neville said on Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football.
“Before the tournament, he was getting so much stick. We were aware of that as a coaching staff that fans were on to him, media were on to him.
“It then continued into the stadium, to the point where there were boos and groans.
“He accepted that he would get criticism playing for England, he accepted he would get scrutinised as an England player, he didn’t want any special treatment.
“But it was so vicious, he felt so targeted, he didn’t know what to do about it. I saw someone who has a great mentality and is tough, but a level of vulnerability.”
Neville admitted he and his fellow England coaches failed to properly acknowledge some of the criticism was racially motivated.
“Really as a coach, I’m being honest, I didn’t really know how to deal with it,” he said.
“We just tried to patch him up really. To the point where you don’t really deal with the underlying issues and reflecting now, brushing it aside.
“But deep down, there was an understanding that there was a difference in tone to the attacks he was getting compared to others.
“The abuse he received, particularly after the tournament, and the language that was used against him, I have not seen before.
“And I’ve lived closely with David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Gazza (Paul Gascoigne), so I’ve seen a lot over the years, but the nastiness I think is there.
“He was willing to stand up and carry on playing to an outstanding level, but he has been carrying this for years, not just (Saturday).
“This isn’t just a Chelsea fan at the weekend, this has been going on for years for him. He came to see me in 2016, was it happening to him before that?
“It is a really difficult situation. He is a tough lad, a tough cookie, to come through the scrutiny he’s come through like he has done is a miracle almost.”
Neville said Sterling was not the only black England player he knew to have suffered from such discrimination.
“It’s not undertones, it’s blatant. I was trying to think if anything happened when I played for England and the lad I used to sit next to for 10 years was Ashley Cole,” he added.
“He’s had to escape this country, almost like a football refugee. Seeking asylum in MLS to get away from it, the way he’s been treated.
“Over the last few days, I’ve heard, ‘Well Gazza got stick and David Beckham got stick and Wayne Rooney got stick’, and I lived closely to two of them lads and it was horrific. The vilification they got when it was bad or made mistakes.
“But when it was good for them, they were hero-worshipped. When it’s good for Ashley Cole or Raheem Sterling, they can’t get the hero worship.”
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