Wayne Rooney’s teammates have rallied to his defence after he was booed on England’s Wembley return.
Rooney was barracked by a small but audible section of the 81,000 crowd during Saturday’s 2-0 win over Malta, most noticeably when he sent a late shot high and wide.
It continues a trend of difficult days for the captain, who was poor in the Euro 2016 defeat by Iceland and again in Sam Allardyce’s solitary match in charge in Slovakia last month.
In all three matches Rooney, the country’s record goalscorer, has operated in a midfield role he still appears to be feeling his way into.
Manager Gareth Southgate was left baffled by the reaction to Rooney on England’s first return to HQ since June, with Jordan Henderson and John Stones also standing staunchly behind their skipper.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve and gives 110 percent and you can see that in every performance. I am a bit shocked that [booing] happened,” said Stones.
“I thought Wayne was brilliant. He has been every time he has played for England.
“In my opinion he is always up there and on form. The top players are always going to get the stick that gets piled on them because of the standards he sets.
“He has never dropped that in training once or in the games and I think that’s why he has been a top player for so long.”
While Stones’ suggestion that the 30-year-old has never suffered a dip in an international career spanning 13 years and 117 caps stretches credulity somewhat, support from inside the dressing room has been a constant in that time.
Henderson comfortably outshone Rooney in the engine room, turning in a man-of-the-match performance and teeing up both of England’s goals.
But the Liverpool captain was also generous in his praise for the Manchester United man.
“Wayne is experienced enough to just concentrate on the football,” he said. “He’s had criticism through a lot of his career, like a lot of players have, and he deals with it very well.
“He’s our captain and our leader and is a fantastic player for both Manchester United and England. He put in a fantastic performance, got on the ball well and broke it up too to win it back for us.
“I didn’t really hear any boos, but if you’re telling me he was booed we have to deal with that as players. There’s always going to be criticism and we just have to stay together and win games.”
Although careful to back up Rooney individually, Henderson did concede the side as a whole have some ground to make up with the public.
The attendance on Saturday would have been the envy of most top European nations but there is no complacency about that level of support.
“The fans have every right to criticise because of the way we went out at the Euros and the World Cup as well,” he said.
“We have to take criticism. We deserve it. But I feel the criticism comes because the fans know we have good players and want us to do well. It’s up to us to put performances on, win games and make sure everyone believes we can do something special.”
Henderson was positive about his midfield partnership with Rooney, which looks likely to continue as he drifts ever further from the central striking role.
Although a Malta side ranked 176 in the world provided modest opposition, Henderson was happy with how things progressed.
“Our instructions were to make sure we communicated and to make sure that both of us didn’t get ahead of the ball and leave gaps in the middle,” he explained.
“We had to make sure one of us was always protecting and one of us was getting forward. I felt we got that balance right a lot of the time. There were still occasions when I felt it could have been better and there’s things we can improve, but for the majority of the game it went well.
“But we’ve got some great players in the squad and it’s just a question of what the manager wants. He could look to change things on Tuesday.”