England manager Gareth Southgate hailed an “electric” Raheem Sterling as the Manchester City forward, not long ago a target for boos, scored his first international hat trick in a 5-0 thrashing of the Czech Republic on Friday.
A slick England attack ran rings around the sorry Czechs with teenager Jadon Sancho outstanding alongside captain Harry Kane, but it was Sterling who stole the show.
The 24-year-old showed a poacher’s instinct to convert Sancho’s cross after 23 minutes and he then won the penalty that Kane powered away on the stroke of half-time.
Sterling struck twice in the space of seven minutes in the second half, the first a sublime curled finish and the second a deflected shot, before being substituted to a standing ovation from the Wembley crowd who once voiced vocal displeasure to him.
“I thought Raheem was electric all night. He has looked like that all week in training. I’m pleased for him, it is a special night for him,” manager Gareth Southgate said.
“I think he’s really matured as a person and a footballer. He’s hungry for goals and hitting things instinctively without thinking too much.”
It had been a rocky road for Sterling since making his international debut in 2012 after bursting into Liverpool’s first team as a teenager.
His first England goal did not arrive until his 14th appearance and when England bowed out of Euro 2016 in humiliating circumstances to Iceland, Sterling took more than his fair share of the blame.
Even at last year’s World Cup doubts remained about Sterling’s international pedigree as he was substituted in England’s laboured opening win against Tunisia after a performance that flattered to deceive.
Sterling, who spoke out last year against a perceived negative image of black players portrayed in the media, has thrived since Pep Guardiola arrived as Manchester City boss.
Southgate is now reaping the rewards for keeping faith with a player who is consistently delivering an end product to the pace and trickery he has always had in abundance.
Having gone three years and 27 England appearances without a goal, he has now scored five in his last three, having bagged a brace in a 3-2 Nations League win over Spain in October.
He also has 15 Premier League goals for City this season.
“Raheem didn’t surprise me,” Southgate told reporters. “He is in a very confident moment on and off the field and is comfortable in himself.
“I’m delighted for him to get that reaction from the crowd. We can’t hide from the fact that he’s had difficult moments for England but he’s turned that full circle.
“He is hungry for those goals and I thought he was devastating tonight.”
With nearly a half century of caps, Sterling is now seen as one of the “leadership group” in the squad, Southgate added.
“He’s a role model for the younger players coming in. He has enjoyed the extra responsibility and that’s shining through on the pitch.”
England play Montenegro in three days in another Euro qualifier before regrouping in June to face Netherlands in the semifinals of the Nations League in Portugal, with the hosts paired with Switzerland in the other last-four match.