When the England players arrive at St George’s Park in Burton on Monday for the four weeks that could define their professional lives, the spa hotel won’t be quite what they remember from previous visits.
It is a lavish location with a spa, swimming pool and jogging paths in the Derbyshire countryside. The only downside is that you have to avoid the herd of curious Jersey cows as you ride the outer edges of those jogging paths.
But as luxurious as it is, it is not at home. And that’s the transformation that Gareth Southgate and his team have been trying to make so that when the team of 26 walks into the lobby and their rooms, it doesn’t feel like a hotel. It will feel like home.
Gareth Southgate wants St George’s Park to feel at home for his England side
Southgate wants to make sure his team goes into the tournament in a good mood
“It’s nice that we can prepare in a familiar environment and that’s always beneficial,” said Southgate.
‘We have more control over the environment. We’ve had a fantastic week here in Middlesbrough, a great balance of relaxing and connecting as a group but getting quality work on the training pitch. But home advantage is not as important as playing well and we have to play well.
“St George’s is an environment that we are familiar with and we hope to change that environment a little bit, so when the players walk through the door it’s not quite like they’ve seen it before, so I’m looking forward to that.
“We have had a quiet run-up, although there are problems every day, but that is the nature of any football club or international team.”
Southgate has made England camps desirable – there will be an outdoor area and BBQs
Southgate and his team have left nothing to chance. At the training camp on the Baltic coast in Repino, just south of Finland and surrounded by forests, for Russia 2018, there was a handwritten note from Southgate waiting not only for the players on arrival, but for every member of the backroom staff. Photos of relatives were placed in bedrooms and objects of sentimental value were transported to Russia.
To outsiders, it may seem redundant. Some may complain that they don’t need home comforts when they’re here to work and win. But Southgate would struggle with that.
They will work, in his opinion better, and such touches can help them win. And whatever happens at this European Championship – and remember that if England win their group they are on their way to a possible last-16 showdown with Portugal or France, the two best teams in the tournament – one thing remains the legacy from Southgate when he leaves this job: he has changed the culture of the England team.
Southgate’s England when he was a player was not like that. They too had the expensively assembled games room that suggested fun and team bonding, and yet they never seemed to get beyond the divisions of the team which saw a Manchester United table, a Liverpool table and an Arsenal table at mealtimes.
Southgate worked closely with psychologist Ian Mitchell to create the ideal environment
There weren’t many who really enjoyed playing for England. Gary Neville would say that while Argentine or French players at Manchester United would eagerly embrace the international week as an opportunity to appreciate the comforts of home, playing for England was a duty and rarely a pleasure.
The recent biographical film about Jack Charlton’s life as manager of the Republic of Ireland gave a fascinating insight into the great man’s thinking, showing the scribbles he’d made all his life to spur him on and never threw them away. They were all in his office when he died last July.
‘Make them want to come,’ wrote Charlton of his core philosophy for the Irish national team when he took over in 1986. ‘Winning helps!’ he added in Charlton’s doodle. That could be Southgate’s mantra for the past five years. And the players want to come now.
In Charlton’s day that could mean giving the players a session in the pub on arrival. Even without the strict Covid bubble that England will be subjected to over the next four weeks, that would be impossible for Southgate. Times have changed. There won’t be a night out in Hong Kong and the dental chair.
But Southgate has found ways to make a camp in England attractive again, after Peter Crouch once described Fabio Capello’s training camps as a ‘luxury prison’. He will have worked closely with Ian Mitchell, the head of Performance Psychology.
Mitchell was a schoolboy Chelsea player and a qualified football coach, as well as a doctorate in sports psychology from Cardiff Metropolitan University. He was also part of the Wales team that took Euro 2016 by storm, as was England goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson. England looked like grumpy tourists at that tournament, and Joe Hart was annoyed that the media asked about the internal darts competition the players had, considering it a privacy issue.
Meanwhile, Chris Coleman’s Wales appeared to be throwing a daily party, at the invitation of the media, at their training base in Dinan, Brittany, with Gareth Bale, an introverted at home, seemingly everyone’s best friend, as he joked with journalists during his frequent press conferences about the four weeks. It was almost as if he was enjoying it.
This is what inspired Southgate to change. He is close to his former Crystal Palace teammate Coleman. It was Coleman’s ‘seize the day’ attitude that had also convinced Southgate that he would let himself down if he didn’t push for the England job when Sam Allardyce was sent off.
In a nod to Hart, Southgate installed a dartboard in their media camp in Repino so players and journalists could compete against each other. The day Jamie Vardy was reluctant to leave after his media duties because he was involved in a pool match with a newspaper writer, Southgate knew he was right and the mood had changed.
Southgate wants something similar, but with Covid restrictions everything has changed. Once they’re in St George’s Park, they’re in the UEFA bubble and can’t get out. The countryside will be classic English, but the limitations may make the basics seem strange. Southgate will work hard to overcome this.
Outdoor areas – which are of increasing importance during Covid times – are set up to encourage socializing, so they will hope for sunshine. The meals, prepared by chef Omar Meziane, who was with the team in Russia and worked for the Spice Girls, are always varied, fresh and of course healthy. Barbecues are on the agenda as outdoor dining is once again a priority and Southgate tries to make dining a social experience rather than a function of the day.
Mitchell, the psychologist, will not hide in an office. You see him more often in a tracksuit on the field. His football background allows that.
The aim is to remove the burdens that previously seemed to weigh heavily on the English players
“My playing background and coaching training allows me to work with a higher level of contextual knowledge because I understand the game,” he told the BelievePerform podcast before joining the FA in 2018. “We always talk about the four pillars of the game, the technical, the tactical, the physical and the mental, and the mental has been largely neglected.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t try to train someone to mentally handle those demands? The difficulty comes when we do that in class and transfer that to the grass, which is difficult. So hopefully we will train through coach training and it will also be about fully integrating the psychological work with the technical and tactical work.’
That work will focus on removing the burdens that once seemed heavy. Southgate has worked hard to lift this group’s attention, to embrace the pressure.
An example was when Harry Kane held his first press conference of the 2018 World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored a hat-trick when Kane announced he wanted to win the Golden Boot. Some chuckled, but Kane did.
It helps that many of his players have winning experiences with England. Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell, Jack Grealish and James Ward-Prowse were part of Southgate’s Under-21 squad that won the Toulon tournament in 2016.
Starlet Phil Foden was part of the England team that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017
Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho were part of the respected 2017 Under-17 World Cup winning team; Mason Mount was part of the England team that won the Under-19 European Championship the same year; and Dominic Solanke was part of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup winning team and was the best player of the tournament.
“When you overcome adversity in certain games, you can think, ‘Maybe this is our time,’ said Calvert-Lewin this week. “It doesn’t have to be late in a tournament or early, it can be anywhere you get that confidence to think, ‘We can do this.'”