LONDON, (Reuters) – England’s World Cup preparations are usually accompanied by the ritual of divisive debates and the raising of expectations to stratospheric levels — neither of which have helped in their 52-year wait for the trophy.
Yet England manager Gareth Southgate has skilfully found a way to neutralise the issues which so often cause rancour and tension and has adopted a relaxed tone, which lowers expectations while maintaining the right level of ambition.
For instance, there is not the traditional debate over who will be the captain because Southgate does not appear to give great priority to the formality of who wears the armband.
“We’ve been through a process of developing leaders in the group, more voices in meetings and don’t feel it’s the captain who is the only one who can make decisions and speak first,” Southgate said during a news conference on Thursday.
“When we’ve been more successful like in (Euro) ‘96 we had six or seven captains in the team. When we get together (on Sunday) we’ll speak about that in more detail,” he said.
In the past, England have been criticised for either being too controlling and restrictive of their players during tournaments or slammed for allowing them to drink on days off before big games.
Southgate says he will not have strict rules on mobile phone usage, social media or what players can and cannot do during their ‘downtime’ before they get together on Sunday.
“I’m not interested in what they do over the next few days,” he said, when asked about some players travelling abroad for breaks.
“It is four weeks before we have a game. Before Euro 96 I had three days in Magaluf with Aston Villa so it would be a bit hypocritical of me to discuss what the correct preparation was,” he said.
Southgate will have a sports psychologist with the team in Russia and a dedicated group of specialists who are charged with handling the players’ overall well-being.
Yet he is also astute enough to know that he is in charge of a group of young men who need a degree of normality and freedom as well.
“Everything in a player’s life now is, ‘fill this bloody form in’, ‘how do you feel?’, there is a danger that we overload them with professionalism and doing the right thing.
“A lot of them don’t drink so that is a changing environment but some of them do and some need to unwind in a different way. They need a switch off and I don’t see an issue with it in the next three or four days,” he said.
But in case anyone thinks he is a soft-touch who will let his players get away with too much, Southgate nipped that potential narrative in the bud.
“Then when we are in – we work. The diet will be spot on, the work we do will be correct and the focus will be intense,” he said.
The former England defender has also found the perfect middle way between realism and not creating excessive pressure and yet still having a positive approach to his team’s chances.
He is not promising a repeat of the triumph in 1966 but nor is he writing off the 2018 tournament as simply a learning process for his young squad.
“I don’t think when you’re involved with England you can ever write any tournament off,” he said.
“That wouldn’t be acceptable. We know that teams who win them tend to be more experienced. That’s what Germany and Spain have done over the years.
“With this group we don’t really know. We have faith in them and know they lack big-match experience but can be very exciting now and even more in the future.
“But I don’t want to limit them: they’re young and hungry and want to have a go. We will embrace the tournament.”