Raheem Sterling used his moment on Thursday night to pay tribute to a late friend as he scored one of England’s four in their win over Hungary in Budapest
Raheem Sterling delivered a message as only he can.
His goal silenced the crowd, his celebration then caused a furore and England secured an impressive victory which puts them in complete control of Group I.
Sterling lifted up his shirt to reveal a T-shirt which read: “Love you forever Steffi Gregg” in tribute to his late friend who died recently.
Down came the plastic cups and objects as the fans jeered the England players who ran across to celebrate with the Manchester City forward.
Eight minutes later, Sterling provided the near cross for Harry Kane to head home a second and, again, the Puskas Arena fell eerily silent.
This is the way to silence a simmering, hostile and volatile crowd which started the night by booing the taking of the knee and finished it with humiliating defeat. There were complaints of monkey chants directed at England players on another shameful night of racism.
Sterling plays by his own rules because when he lifted up his shirt you might have expected an anti-racism message because of what England feared would – and did – happen in Budapest.
But it was something different, a tribute to a friend from Jamaica but clearly something dear to his heart as he celebrated his 18th goal for England and his fourth in his last eight games.
Sterling has become untouchable for England, the most important player in the squad and the one whose voice and actions are heard above everyone else.
It was Sterling who paved the way for what was ultimately a thumping, comprehensive victory but they got there with an impressive, controlled and mature performance.
They put Hungary in their place with a patient first half, it was painfully dull at times but then completely overwhelmed their opponents in the second half. Harry Maguire and Declan Rice wrapped it up late on thanks to two goalkeeping howlers.
But this also felt like England had moved on from the Euros, put that disappointment and heartbreak behind them and have now got one foot in the World Cup finals in Qatar next year.
This, after all, was supposed to be one of the most difficult tests along with an away match in Warsaw next Wednesday when they face Poland.
But it is now four wins out of four games, England are so strong in qualifying matches as they have lost just once in their last 51 World Cup and European qualifiers.
Having got through a very dull first 45 minutes, the England turned up the heat. Effectively, they wore down the opposition like a one-sided boxing contest, jabbing away until choosing the moment to land the knock out blow.
Kane missed one big chance but then, rather predictably, the goal came from down the left as Grealish combined with Mason Mount, the Chelsea midfielder pulled back a low cross and there was Sterling to steer the ball home.
Sterling then set up the second as his near post cross found Kane and his wonderful header beat Péter Gulácsi and flew into the net. The stadium fell silent again. It was surreal. But that is what happens with no away fans.
After 69 minutes, it was all over. Luke Shaw’s corner found Maguire and his header was spilled by Gulácsi and the ball trickled into the net.
What a way to answer the doubters, put the heartbreak of the Euros behind them and silence a notorious crowd.
It almost turned into shooting practice by the end as Kane and Sterling went close before Rice’s 20 yard daisy cutter went right through the keeper, almost to the West Ham midfielder’s disbelief.