In a quiet spot at L’Avenue, one of the pavement cafes on Avenue du Maréchal Joffre, Roy Hodgson could be seen pouring a glass of red with his assistant, Ray Lewington, and going over their first few days in a town where even the lingerie shop, La Rose Noire, has St George flags in the windows.
Gary Neville had stopped on Rue du Connétable to enthuse about Chantilly’s charms. The players had their first stroll through town on Wednesday and apart from the clicking of paparazzi cameras, they must have liked the relaxed mood. “Welcome” was the message fluttering from lamp-posts, balconies and spires.
These are the times when everyone seems to be getting on fine. It was the same in Rio de Janeiro two years ago, in Krakow for Euro 2012, Rustenburg for the 2010 World Cup and all those other places where the Football Association has set up temporary homes. “Everyone is just having a great laugh,” Chris Smalling said of the mood at England’s hotel, Auberge du Jeu de Paume, with its Michelin stars and €70 mushroom risotto. Daniel Sturridge has called the team “a family” and everyone is agreed – the hotel, the training facilities, the atmosphere; everything has gone swimmingly so far.
It is later, generally, that a different picture emerges. Steven Gerrard’s last book recalls how in Brazil for the World Cup, while everyone was deliberately sounding upbeat in public, the reality was “there were some disappointing aspects” about Hodgson’s training sessions before their first game against Italy.
Gerrard wrote about it not being “intense, sharp or aggressive enough on a daily basis”. Perhaps, he wondered, it might be due to tiredness at the end of the season but whatever the reason, it filled his mind with insecurity. “Some of the sessions were far too slow. I went back to my hotel room a couple of times and I wasn’t very happy. It didn’t look good when the standard of training was so slow and predictable.”
Gerrard spoke to Neville about it – “there were times when he was disappointed with certain sessions himself” – and his memories jar slightly with Sturridge, a player not usually renowned for his lack of ego, promising this week that anyone out of the starting lineup against Russia on Saturday, himself included, would understand the togetherness of the squad counted more than anything.
It was the right thing to say but the reality is footballers can be selfish creatures. Gerrard recalled that as soon as the team selection became obvious in training “some of the players who are going to be left out feel sorry for themselves”. This is when team spirit can erode. “The whole group is soon affected,” Gerrard noted. “I think that happened on certain days in Brazil.”
It could easily happen in France, too, even if it is fair to say England’s players should not take any notice of those training-ground notes Lewington was carrying – subsequently snapped by one member of the paparazzi and sold to the Sun – when Hodgson’s No2 was walking through town on Tuesday.
Lewington’s notes had the names of various players in formation and were interpreted by some as him inadvertently giving away the team for Saturday’s game. As it turned out, it was actually for a six-against-six training-ground exercise. “It was just a simple drill we had involving crosses,” he explained. “We had two teams of six taking part. We just found it a bit of a laugh.” There were also, on closer inspection, 13 names – including James Milner twice – though it was a neat line in humour from Chris Coleman, at the Wales camp in Brittany, to walk out for training with a clipboard showing his own plans, featuring Pelé and Diego Maradona in front of, among others, George Best, Sócrates and Zico.
If Coleman really wanted to wind up England he should probably have added Gareth Bale’s name to that list, just to remind everyone it will be a two-times Champions League winner hoping to determine whether Hodgson’s team may be vulnerable in defence when the two sides meet in Lens next week.
England can certainly look that way with a proposed back four of Smalling and Gary Cahill in the central positions and two full-backs, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, whose main strengths are going forward. Walker’s performance in the 2-1 defeat by Holland in March was the case in point, catching the eye with his surging runs forward but leaving his position so often there was a feeling in the England camp he had endangered his team at times.
Smalling’s last appearance for Manchester United, when he was sent off in the FA Cup final (to go with his own-goal in the semi-final) is another reminder of his occasionally accident-prone nature. He and Cahill will come up against the 6ft 5in Artem Dzyuba on Saturday and the Russian, with nine goals in 18 games, appears to have an Ivan Drago turn of phrase to go with his height. Dzyuba, preparing at the Russian base in Croissy-sur-Seine, remembered an old interview from 2012. “I called myself a lion cub,” he said. “Now I am a lion.”
Smalling, to give him his due, is coming off his best season at club level. “There is always something to prove,” he said. “There will always be people saying someone else can come in and do the job better. I want to show I can do the job.”
As for England’s own lion cub, Smalling has deliberately been assigned a room next to Marcus Rashford to help his United team-mate settle in. “He’s feeling a lot more relaxed now,” the older man reported. There is, however, still a fair bit of shyness, which should probably be of no surprise given Rashford’s age and the unorthodox nature of his success.
As noted inside England’s camp, the 18-year-old had not even made his Old Trafford debut when the official Euro 2016 sticker album went to print.
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