England must create a castle for themselves in no-thrills Repino

Nineteenth Century realist artist Ilya Repin’s most famous piece, The Barge Haulers on the Volga, depicts 11 men physically dragging a barge on the banks of the Volga River.

Ten look defeated. In sweltering conditions, they are at the verge of collapse from exhaustion. But a brightly-coloured youth stands out in the centre, fighting against leather binds to drag his comrades forward.

Ironic, then, that England manager Gareth Southgate should choose Repino, this backwater close to the Baltic Sea as his squad’s World Cup base, where temperatures struggle to rise above 16 degrees Celsius in June.

Little did Repin know back then that the village named after him would see a band of brothers, 145 years later, arrive on these shores, ready to work to achieve a common goal.

Barge-Haulers-on-the-Volga-by-Ilya-Repin

While the artist’s painting is the unflinching portrayal of backbreaking labour, representing your country at the World Cup is a million miles away from the inhumane suffering of the working-class during 19th Century Russia, but the symbol of 11 men pulling in the same direction, upstream against the current, rings true of this unfancied England.

Only there are no superstars, no real stand-out youth shining brightly, but in the village that translates in Russian as “rest and relaxation”, England arrive on Tuesday re-energised and ready to work. It is a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, but fears of boredom will again linger.

Southgate’s admission to banning sweets from the Starbucks at St George’s Park may have been designed as a way of allowing his players to get used to the stark contrast they shall experience this month compared to the many distractions back home.

Despite having just four hours of darkness during the summer due to its northern location, this is a sleepy village with one or two decent restaurants and a long beach, but there is very little else.

England Media Access

Another immediate challenge created by England’s choice of base is that it could lead to significant temperature swings. Volgograd, where England face Tunisia some 1,000 miles away from their training base, was a scorching 29 degrees last week while it was 11 degrees in Repino.

The base is surrounded by woodland. This rural oasis will be where England rest and recharge in between matches, first for six days between the opener against Tunisia and their second match with Panama, and then for another four ahead of facing Belgium.

Plenty of time sitting around, then. Tucked away in the forest, with police officers standing guard, under the gaze of myriad security cameras, this hotel will be on lockdown with England taking over the facilities for the duration of their time in Russia.

The enthusiastic locals have been aware of the team’s pending presence for some time, but it hasn’t stopped them from being somewhat bemused by the wall-to-wall media attention that has arrived at their door. Here, there is no such thing as a 24-hour news channel with camera crews arriving long before the players themselves.

FBL-WC-2018-ENGLAND-BASE

Repino’s high street is located a five-minute drive away from England’s hotel. There’s little more on offer but a supermarket and a small disco. From the very modest train station, St Petersburg is half an hour away. The players’ wives and girlfriends will stay here, where there are plenty more activities and sight-seeing.

The clunkily-named Forrestmix Club Hotel has received poor reviews from guests – who criticised the accommodation’s food and “chemical” swimming pool – while locals say no-one visits here in June because it’s still far too cold.

The bold red décor in this four-star hotel is bordered by prison-like gates, and a night’s stay would set back the intrepid traveller £104. England have brought along their own chef while two five-tonne lorries will provide the travelling party with everything they need.

But while there are concerns that Repino could replicate the ennui of Rustenburg, eight years ago in South Africa, the move away from the pampered bubble could work in England’s favour.

FBL-WC-2018-ENGLAND-BASE

Stripped back, Repino – with a population of around 2,000 – is a far cry from past luxuries, and this secluded 107-room hotel on the Gulf of Finland has been cherry-picked by the FA out of around 70 options in the FIFA World Cup brochure.  Southgate visited the location before qualification was assured last October.

The challenge of keeping minds trained on the job in hand, while creating a bond between all 23 players, is not exclusive to England, but personalities will have to come to the fore, camaraderie must replace cliques of previous tournaments.

All 32 teams at the World Cup will face the same obstacle, but former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson feels Southgate’s players may need to work harder to fill the time based on the cultural differences.

He recalled in a recent interview with the BBC how Italian players drink coffee at nearby cafes, keeping each other company for hours without the need for additional stimulation.

Quarter Final England v Portugal: World Cup 2006

But an oft-cited episode from England’s forgettable 2010 World Cup was Jermain Defoe’s admission he watched the entire DVD of Wayne Rooney’s wedding on a rest day. The FA have supplied camps with computer games and table-tennis tables for several years in an attempt to break up the monotony, but there is only so much it can do.

It is a calculated risk by Southgate choosing somewhere that seems so similar to the purpose-built facility elected for by Fabio Capello in South Africa.

Rob Green, who was ruthlessly dropped after his mistake in the opening match against USA, hopes Southgate’s time as a player with England during the 1990s helps turn training camps into a place where friendships, and momentum, can be built.

“In South Africa, we were responsible for nothing,” he told BBC 5Live last week. “They’ll be waiting for Love Island to come on later, lounging around waiting for the next training session.

“After the Germany defeat [in Bloemfontein] we all sat down and had a drink. The feeling was, ‘Why didn’t we do it a lot earlier?’ We were getting on a lot better. It was a shame we hadn’t done it sooner.”

England's midfielder Frank Lampard (L) a

Chris Waddle, on the same programme, remembered the time he room-shared with Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90 – “getting around three hours kip in the entire six weeks” – while Paul Ince and Ian Wright also created a strong rapport they took onto the pitch during get-togethers.

What Southgate has sought is a happy medium between the tedium of Rustenburg and delights of Baden-Baden, a luxury hotel in the Black Forest, which Eriksson said he hoped would act as a launch pad for success in 2006.

But the victimisation of Raheem Sterling by one media outlet in particular may have done just that. The togetherness of this current crop under Southgate, with the emphatic response in support of their team-mate, is indicative of the fruits of the FA’s labour since launching the England DNA in December 2014.

It was Txiki Begiristain, during his time working with Pep Guardiola, who would remind players that their talent has taken them to the dressing-room, but it is their behaviour that will determine how long they would stay.

England Media Access

Putting the team above the individual has led to further success for the pair at Manchester City, and the likes of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Fabian Delph and Sterling should seek to create the same environment within the England camp under a manager who is the embodiment of hard work.

Eriksson still does not regret allowing his players time with their wives and girlfriends in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, and Southgate has similarly sought to treat his players like adults. Cutting off his squad members from their family and social media would not be in keeping with his attempts at creating a connection with supporters.

Parents, who have been the bedrock for their sons throughout their formative years, deserve to be with them at a World Cup, the pinnacle of a player’s career and reward for their sacrifices. Further support will be on offer through a psychologist, who will be present at the camp at all times.

But in 1962, the England squad would be far from bored despite having just playing cards, a golf course, snooker table and cinema club for entertainment. There were no televisions. A library was seen as excessive.

England in Japan

Now, there are games consoles and players can FaceTime their loved ones. There’s a communal element to games such as Fortnite, spearheaded by Dele Alli, where bonds can be created by playing against team-mates and members of the public.

Southgate said on Monday: “Concentration levels must be high, but there must be a balance. They are young people, but it can’t be 24 hours a day, otherwise you won’t get the best out of them.”

The creation of a bubble cut off from the rest of those celebrating a World Cup has always been the first stick to beat England with in previous much-maligned editions, but Southgate appears to understand his role more as a leader than a club-manager. It has earned him the universal respect of the group.

Roy Hodgson’s England opted a five-star hotel, the Auberge du Jeu de Paume, as their base in Chantilly during Euro 2016, but expectations this time are in keeping with the modest backdrop to England’s final preparations.

Sardinia was the destination in 1990, while there was five-star treatment in Krakow in 2012. Rio de Janeiro followed two years later, having listened to the players’ desires not to be isolated from “civilisation”.

England veered away from initial plans to stay in Copacabana, moving to Sao Conrado further south of the city, where there was very little to see or do except play golf at the Gavea Golf Club.

Team England's Hotel in Rio de Janeiro - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Like their surroundings for the coming month, England’s chosen hotel, the Royal Tulip, was far removed from the standard of accommodation experienced elsewhere by those multi-millionaires, close to Rocinha – one of the biggest favelas in Rio.

Transport to and from the training ground proved problematic due to rush-hour traffic, however, while the city’s reputation for violence only added to factors counting against it as the ideal base.

Southgate once took his squad and backroom staff to train at the Marines base in Devon, and as England head for Russia, he may point his players in the direction of the barge haulers in Repin’s masterpiece.

They will be aware from the outset that any hopes of Michelin-star cuisine and high-end spa treatments will not be forthcoming in their quest for glory.

A 13ft fence has been erected around their training camp at the Zelenogorska Spartak ground to keep out spies. England will learn soon enough they must create a castle for themselves.

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