Gareth Southgate baffled by England fans’ booing of Wayne Rooney

• England captain was booed before and during 2-0 win against Malta
• ‘The criticism is unfair. But he ploughs on and plays with pride’

Gareth Southgate offered a public defence of Wayne Rooney, praising his input over this international window and stressing the booing that his captain was subjected to from sections of the crowd at Wembley was unhelpful.

Rooney, operating in a deep-lying midfield role on his 117th cap as England overcame Malta 2-0, had been booed by some home supporters when his name was read out over the PA system before the kick-off. That criticism flared up again late on as he overhit a shot, the ball sailing out for a goal‑kick, with a crowd of more than 81,000 having long since grown frustrated at England’s inability to build on their first‑half advantage.

The 30-year-old was also perhaps fortunate not to be sanctioned by the Swedish referee after clattering his opposing captain, André Schembri, with his follow-through during the first half, though. However, Southgate was satisfied with Rooney’s display and baffled by the crowd’s reaction. “If you look at the number of games and his goalscoring feats for England … I don’t quite understand that [booing],” he said. “I presented him with a cap in the week for becoming the record outfield cap-holder with his country and it’s been fascinating to get an insight into his world over the last 10 days.

“Every debate focuses on him. The onus on him is enormous. The criticism of him is, at times, unfair. But he ploughs on and plays with pride, captaining his country with pride. I always look back to the Terrys, the Lampards, the Ashley Coles … in their time with England they took an enormous amount of criticism, but, if you look at their caps, they kept turning out and putting themselves on the line.

“Others have not put themselves forward and withdrawn from squads when the going has got tough. Those guys put their neck on the block and played for their country again and again. I don’t understand [the booing]. But that seems to be the landscape. I have no idea how that is expected to help him.”

Southgate had in effect selected Rooney in a role to which José Mourinho has stated publicly he is not suited at Manchester United. “Look, José will have his opinion on what’s right for his team,” said the interim manager. “I had to pick a team to get a result today. Wayne’s experience and his leadership have been crucial throughout this week, not just today. I wanted to get Dele Alli higher up the pitch as a link between midfield and the forwards. He got his goal and was disappointed not to get a second, for sure. That team and system suited us today.

“Between Wayne and Jordan Henderson their job was to control that area of the field. To link between the lines. When you look back at the Slovakia game, there were times when that link wasn’t there. We felt it was important today, and Dele as a No10 helped that, as well as Jesse Lingard coming in off the line. They were there to control the game, and make sure we didn’t get caught on the counter. We knew we’d have a lot of the ball. It was a game where we’d dictate the tempo.”

England have called up Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs, as a replacement for the hamstrung Ryan Bertrand, before Tuesday’s tricky qualifier in Slovenia with Southgate encouraged by much that he witnessed on his Wembley debut as manager. “At times we played some really nice stuff, and had plenty of chances to have made it more comfortable,” he added. “In the second half, subconsciously, there was a feeling the game was won and we were looking towards Tuesday, physically. We didn’t bomb forward as we might have done had the scoreline been tighter. There’s room for improvement, but that’s not a bad place for us to be.

“I have to be realistic about how quickly some of the ideas we’re trying to implement can take place. Given the situation I picked up about 12 days ago, internally we’ve come a hell of a long way to get everything together and get a performance where we were always in control of the game. You have to look at the situation we inherited and what was required at the time. Football-wise we’ll get better. The players would recognise that. I’ve seen teams having to work all pre-season to get new ideas across, and we’ve had four days. So I have to be realistic about how it might look.

“But, in moments, we moved the ball really well. At times we moved it a bit too slowly in the second half, and a bit longer than we needed to. But all those things will come in time. The players managed the game sensibly, albeit the crowd would have liked to have seen more goals. As would we. Tuesday will be a completely different challenge.”