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After a final day off with their families, England players will arrive at St George’s Park on Tuesday to a new-look hotel and a ‘home from home’ with an outdoor cinema, cricket pitch and, of course, Covid tests.
The Football Association has kept the exact look of the 330-acre facility, which the players will have exclusive use of during the tournament, under wraps as they want to have a ‘big reveal’ to surprise them.
With the 26-man squad given allowed to return home to be in their family bubbles on Monday they will make their way to ‘SGP’ in the morning and, once tested, be given a tour of the remodelled facility where the 228-bed Hilton Hotel on site has been given an innovative cosmetic makeover.
The FA have had two staff working on it full time over the past few weeks with the aim of making it feel more like a home and less like a hotel. It means that each individual hotel room assigned to the players is likely to have some personal touches such as photos on the walls and effects from their families to make it appear less like they are away.
England captain Harry Kane, it seems, is one player who has been consulted on what the facilities should be like and has given an insight. “We’ve got a cricket pitch and we might get a bit of golf in, but it’s more around the hotel,” the striker said.
“Boys will be playing PlayStation and things like that, but I’ve just started Game of Thrones, believe it or not. I’ve got a nice little period to finish that off and it’ll be finished before the end of the tournament.”
While Kane intends to work his way through a box set, the use of outdoor space will be essential. The FA have not built a golf course – although they did once consult on whether it was worth constructing a nine-hole facility – but it will devote space to a ‘pitch and putt’ area and is also converting one of the football pitches into a cricket pitch for downtime.
The FA is planning spaces for both an outdoor and indoor cinema and areas of the hotel have been ‘opened up’ to make it easier to mingle and relax. Players will be encouraged to wander around and use communal areas especially outdoors. There will also be a vast array of video consoles and games machines. In Russia one of the most popular was a golf simulator.
Possibly the most crucial area will be around the barbecues that are being overseen by the team chef Omar Meziane. More than ever, given Covid and the rules in place around the players and staff being in a Uefa ‘bubble’, communal eating, especially outdoors, will be important.
Gareth Southgate made much of this in Russia during the last World Cup and has been concerned that wearing masks and limiting time together could have a detrimental effect on team bonding. In the ‘High Performance Podcast’ he spoke of how “an army marches on its stomach” and how much store he places on informal conversations.
Southgate explained: “I think things like meal times are critical. We’ve got a brilliant chef and it’s an opportunity for everybody to sit, chat, get to know each other better, enjoy the food.
“So there was a period where actually we had staff meetings booked in at meal times during the World Cup and I had to say: ‘Look, respectfully, I am not having this because I just want to go and eat and I am missing out on the opportunity to sit with a player or a member of staff who I have not had time to see. And also let’s have one moment of the day when we are all in together and we are chatting’.
“You know an army marches on its stomach. It’s a classic example of where it’s not right everyone is quick to say it’s not right and we are in a fortunate place to say it’s brilliant and I think it adds to the culture.”
Southgate has worked closely with his coaching staff and also Ian Mitchell, the Head of Performance Psychology, and one particular concern is the effect on the squad of playing all the group games and – if England go all the way – six of their seven matches at Wembley and therefore at ‘home’ without actually ever being allowed to go home.
Family visits will be impossible, under current restrictions, once they are in camp and some may struggle with that, especially if England progress.
It is also why Southgate will not just keep his players at SGP. Before games they will stay at Tottenham Hotspur’s superbly-appointed The Lodge, which is part of their state-of-the-art training ground, partly to mix things up but also because Uefa insists the teams stay closer to the stadium on the night before matches.