By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) - England manager Gareth Southgate offered an impassioned defence of his captain Wayne Rooney after the national team's all-time top goalscorer suffered jeers from the crowd near the end of their 2-0 win against Malta in a World Cup qualifier.
After his first match at the helm, the caretaker boss said he could not understand why some of the 82,000 crowd booed the Manchester United striker during the win and reckoned he was a player who suffered "unfair" criticism.
"I don't understand it, but that seems to be the landscape. I've no idea how that is expected to help him," Southgate said at the end of a week when he presented Rooney with a special cap to mark his achievement in becoming England's most capped outfield player.
Southgate had chosen the 117-times capped Rooney in his deepest midfield role yet and watched another performance from his captain that did not entirely convince that his future lies there, especially after a poor start to the season with United.
Yet though the boos started near the end when Rooney hoofed one aimless cross, Southgate was quick to proclaim the importance of the 30-year-old to him both on and off the pitch since he took the reins 12 days ago following the departure of the disgraced Sam Allardyce.
"I think his experience, his leadership has been crucial throughout this week, not just today," Southgate said.
"Every debate seems to focus on him, the onus on him is enormous and the criticism of him is at times unfair. He ploughs on and plays with pride and captains his country with pride.
"I always look back to the (John) Terrys, the (Frank) Lampards, the Ashley Coles. In their time with England they took enormous criticism but look at the caps they won, they were the guys who kept turning up, who put themselves on the line when other players wouldn't put themselves forward and withdrew from squads when the going's got tough.
"They have desperately wanted to play for England again and again and put their neck on the block. Wayne falls into that category."
Southgate, whose side won with first-half goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli, was not unhappy with their performance even if he recognised that, like the crowd, he had wanted to see more goals.
"I think in the second half sub-consciously we had the feeling the game was won and we were looking towards Tuesday (and the next qualifier in Slovenia) physically," he said.
"Given the situation I picked up about 12 days ago (following Allardyce's departure), we've internally come a hell of a long way."
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Pritha Sarkar)