Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville claims Manchester City star Raheem Sterling endured years of “vicious” abuse before the alleged racist slurs directed at him by Chelsea fans on Saturday.
Chelsea have suspended four supporters while they continue their investigation into the incident.
Neville, who worked with Sterling during his time as the assistant to former England boss Roy Hodgson, says the abuse at Chelsea is far from the first time the City winger has taken the brunt of vitriolic public criticism.
Neville revealed Sterling approached him for advice during Euro 2016 when abuse from fans and media for his poor performances became too much for him to take.
“He came to see me one-on-one in 2016, I think it was three or four days before the Iceland game,” Neville said on Monday Night Football.
“Before the tournament, he was getting so much stick. We were aware of that as a coaching staff that fans were on to him, media were on to him.
“It then continued into the stadium, to the point where there were boos and groans.
“He accepted that he would get criticism playing for England, he accepted he would get scrutinised as an England player, he didn’t want any special treatment. Place Bet on today’s games
“But it was so vicious, he felt so targeted, he didn’t know what to do about it. I saw someone who has a great mentality and is tough, but a level of vulnerability.”
Neville admitted he and his fellow England coaches failed to properly acknowledge some of the criticism of former Liverpool star Sterling was racially motivated.
“Really as a coach, I’m being honest, I didn’t really know how to deal with it,” he said.
“The abuse he received, particularly after the tournament, and the language that was used against him, I have not seen before.
“He was willing to stand up and carry on playing to an outstanding level, but he has been carrying this for years, not just Saturday.
“This isn’t just a Chelsea fan at the weekend, this has been going on for years for him. He came to see me in 2016, was it happening to him before that?
“It is a really difficult situation. He is a tough lad, a tough cookie, to come through the scrutiny he’s come through as he has done is a miracle almost.”
Neville said Sterling was not the only black England player he knew to have suffered from such discrimination.
“It’s not undertones, it’s blatant. I was trying to think if anything happened when I played for England and the lad I used to sit next to for 10 years was Ashley Cole,” he added.
“He’s had to escape this country, almost like a football refugee. Seeking asylum in MLS to get away from it, the way he’s been treated.”