England fall short but open the door for football’s honours to follow them home

From the very modern video reveal of the squad, England’s youngest at a World Cup since 1958, the FA’s message has been to reconnect with the nation. Box parks grew, while the inclusion of a designated YouTube channel, the Lions’ Den, had players speaking daily to their supporters.

We have all had our favourites from this band of brothers, from Jordan Pickford getting the rave on and Telford kitman Pat Frost putting up his flag before matches, to Harry ‘Slab Head’ Maguire telling his girlfriend Fern Hawkins to remember the bins on Monday.

Gareth Southgate’s rallying cries after Colombia and Sweden will live long in the memory for those fans whose journeys from Europe’s backwaters – from Valletta, Vilnius, Ljubljana – wound up here at Moscow’s Luzhniki.

They saw a moment of history in the Battle at Spartak Stadium, the impossible made possible by Pickford’s big left hand clawing away Carlos Bacca’s penalty, a first World Cup shootout win.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSweden were swept aside with such ease never experienced before in a tournament quarter-final. Versions of ‘Three Lions’ designed to be tongue-in-cheek – we’re here for a good time, but not a long time – took on a more visceral meaning. Football had already come home.

A 20-year-old Gary Neville was told by Stuart Pearce in the aftermath of the penalty shootout defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 to ‘enjoy this while you can. It may not happen again.’

The hope is that this is just the beginning, but the likelihood is that they will never get a better opportunity, a better fall of the draw to reach a World Cup final. If it was measured on world rankings, it would have been the fourth easiest route to a final in the tournament’s history.

They will return home heroes, but we will all be thinking of that window in the first half when it looked like England could have blown Croatia away. Ultimately, superior quality told. The brilliant Ivan Perisic punished a flat-footed Kyle Walker and wanted it more than Kieran Trippier in setting up Mario Mandzukic for the hammer-blow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGIt was England who tired first, and it goes back to naivety and experience. The initial high tempo led to them, not Croatia, looking more fatigued despite not being the side in their third successive period of extra time.

England players covered just under three miles more than Croatia (91.8 to 89), but they covered less when in possession of the ball (28.9 to 33.8), while England covered 38.2 miles without the ball compared to 31.3 miles by Zlato Dalic’s men.

England’s top speed during the match eclipsed that of their opponents (20.7mph from Raheem Sterling compared to 19.9mph) but 530 sprints from Croatian players to England’s 488 again pointed to the fact that one team was far more economical with their use of energy than the other.

Luka Modric began to dictate, 10 minutes into the second-half. Walker’s booking for dissent seemed to affect his game. The average positions for England players showed that both wing-backs played deeper than in previous matches, while Harry Kane was effectively a midfielder come the final 20 minutes.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaCroatia had shown too much respect for England in the first-half, but come the second period, Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic played in more advanced positions.

England had the chance to be bold and push forward, but they found themselves increasingly pinned back as more and more regains were picked up by those in black and blue shirts. There was a shift in composure.

Kane is set to win the golden ball, but his performances dwindled since the group stages. The abiding memory will be his chance here after 29 minutes, long before Croatia grew into the contest. VAR will have ruled either one of his shots onside had he stroked the ball past Danijel Subasic. It was the double-save of the tournament never officially recorded.

Kane didn’t recover thereafter, and Croatia relied on their team ethic to overcome inexperience. England ultimately lacked the creativity in midfield, where Ivan Rakitic and Modric increasingly looked like they had the game in the palm of their hands as Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ran out of legs.

Possession dropped from 47 to 35 per cent in the second period as Croatia turned the screw, streetwise, targeting space vacated by Young down England’s left side. Eleven shots on goal, half the number managed by Croatia, with just two on target and 25 crosses fewer than their opponents tell you that England fell short.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaLingard and Kane failed to make an impact, while Raheem Sterling was hooked prematurely, making way for an out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford. Too many players just didn’t turn up on Wednesday night for England in an attacking sense.  Croatia deserve their place in the final, despite an improvement from Southgate’s side in extra time.

But the reflections of Walker the morning after the heart-breaking end of the dream encapsulates the overriding mood from this ‘glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer,’ as the Daily Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace described it in the opening bar to his match report.

Walker wrote: “I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.”

He continued: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

England players arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel at 6.30am on Thursday morning. Exhausted but in the knowledge that psychological barriers had been overcome during the course of the past three weeks.

GettyImages-996390742.jpgBelgium, again, on Saturday could well be a re-run of matchday three. It’s an opportunity for some of the players with fresher legs who have been part of the journey to show their qualities, to even put right their defeat to Roberto Martinez’s reserves in Kaliningrad.

The manner in which England faded in the second period suggests a return to an experimental side is the only way they can hope of achieving bronze, regardless.

The energy of Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks, with Fabian Delph alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier in midfield behind Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front would make a lot of sense.

Furthermore, the FA will be under pressure from Premier League clubs to allow Southgate’s first-team players to gain rest before the new domestic season starts in less than a month.

Trippier is unlikely to remain in Russia for another four days after hobbling off at the end of extra time, while stalwarts John Stones and Maguire may also step aside, but in shuffling the pack, England wouldn’t be conceding the contest as a dead rubber.

GettyImages-996430268.jpgWe all know what happened after Italia ’90, and the unexpected failures at the following European Championships and no-show at the USA ’94. The success of the junior teams can’t be lost on the senior squad.

The hard fact is that a group-stage exit in 2014 has been followed by a semi-final defeat after extra time, and this cannot become viewed as an isolated, beautiful break from the norm.

Academy coaches should be encouraged to blood players through rather than taking on those from abroad, while managers should look to English youth more in the belief they don’t have to spend big money on foreign imports.

The hope is that the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League – clocked last season at around 30 per cent – now experiences an upward curve, while British managers will also take courage from Southgate’s achievements.

How these brave young men emulated Bobby Robson’s boys of 28 years ago will not be remembered for avoiding one of the world’s great footballing superpowers, but for the camaraderie built in the forests of Repino.

For the inflatable unicorn races and fans bleating out Oasis’ hit Don’t Look Back In Anger behind the goal long after the final whistle, and those up and down the country who dared to dream that football, unexpectedly, was coming home.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSeven of England’s starting XI last night will still be in their 20s when the next World Cup comes around in Qatar 2022, while 12 of Southgate’s 23-man squad could play in the next two tournaments. They now understand the preparation that goes into such a slog.

Small details have cost England at the penultimate hurdle, but optimism remains for the future. The parade has been put on hold, at least four another two years, but the reception at Heathrow next week will resonate more for its spontaneity and raw emotion.

There will be no choreography needed. There’s no stopping fans from flocking to the streets to hail their national treasures. With the final of Euro 2020 scheduled to take place at Wembley, the challenge now is to handle the desire for more.

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Is Football no longer Coming Home? Have we lost our heads again over England at the World Cup?

“This week on Love Island,” began the narrator. “A twist. Six new girls. Six. New. Boys.”

Only, this happened last year, and will most probably be flogged to death until we’ve long since stopped watching.

“Like Big Brother, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent,” as the country’s future Prime Minister Danny Dyer said last night on Good Evening Great Britain.

Even the contestants knew about Casa Amor. The narrative has been just as predictable from the moment England arrived in Russia: give them what they want. But for how long will journalists following England at a World Cup be relevant?

England Media Access - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaFrom the sparsely populated mixed zone following their opening group game win over Tunisia in Volgograd, it was apparent that the rest of the world don’t think much of England’s chances of winning the tournament.

And yet the subsequent 6-1 thrashing of Panama led to a sense of euphoria in the press box not seen since Euro ’96, brought cascading back down to earth by the B team’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium that has created a “sense of anti-climax’ according to the Guardian’s London football correspondent Dominic Fifield.

Speaking on the Sunday Supplement podcast, he said: “There were too many changes, it was too disruptive, and I think it’s exposed the depth of squad quality that we’ve got. It feels a bit of a waste.” But has it really?

Does it merely show what happens when you throw a group of players together without a competitive match between them in over a month?

GettyImages-986404052.jpgThose who steadfastly defend Gareth Southgate for his team selection – which saw eight changes to the side which beat the Panamanians – claim this might prove a masterstroke. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel claimed he turned the World Cup into Sports Day.

Make no mistake, the pressure would most certainly still be on if England were facing Japan in the last 16. It would be even greater had the ‘A team’ lost to Belgium’s reserves. That would have been a sack race of a completely different kind.

By risking and ultimately relinquishing England’s position as group winners, Southgate has not only aligned England on the easier side of the draw; he has preserved the confidence of his leading men.

Matt Dickinson, chief sports writer at The Times, chose the word ‘deflating’. “As if the air had gone out”.

Southgate’s strategy was always to win this game, but when he moved Marcus Rashford to right wing-back to make room for Danny Welbeck, the extent to which he was willing to salvage a draw was revealed.

GettyImages-986359798.jpgSouthgate has always been about the long-term, and one defeat with a huge asterisk beside it should not lead to loaded back-page questioning of his tactics.

The ‘build ‘em up to knock ‘em down’ mind-set revisited by Matthew Syed in his Times column this week is now so well known by the public that it’s become a parody of itself.

Did fans truly think they’d win the World Cup after beating Panama and Tunisia? Or are they not just allowed to reminisce about their youth, wearing knock-down Fred Perry polos, singing Fat Les whilst drinking watered-down lager? The criticism of Southgate seems just as disingenuous.

The assumption, of course, is that beating a side incapable of gracing the English third tier had created a sense of momentum. It has been made by those who have travelled and reported on England for decades.

The core group of players who featured in the opening two games have already returned to full-blooded training today without the need for a recovery day ahead of the shorter visit to Moscow to face a Colombia side who were made to fight until the last second by Senegal.

The same Colombia side that is likely to be without James Rodriguez and who indeed were beaten by Japan in their opening game, albeit with 10 men for much of that match.

“The concern is we’ve gone down the same route as 2016,” continued Fifield, referencing the weakened team selected in the final group game against Slovakia. But why do we love so much to stick to this same narrative?

Why do we question when England will ever win a tournament again every two years when we seem to lose our heads at the thought of two similar scenarios being played out in entirely different circumstances?

This, don’t forget, will be like a home game for Colombia. Why? Because there will be thousands more yellow shirts in the stands. They will drown out the few thousand England supporters who have paid lip service to the scaremongering headlines that dissuaded them from visiting this wonderful country.

“The difference with Roy Hodgson’s team at the Euros was that team didn’t have any cohesion already,” reasoned Dickinson. “We were a mess, frankly. It felt like Roy was making it up as he went along in that tournament.

“Now, we know the first team very clearly, but I worry less about the word ‘momentum’. Obviously, all of us are concerned about Colombia, and it’ll be a lot harder than beating Japan. But if I was Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, I shouldn’t have lost my momentum.”

But the logic was lost of The Sun’s chief football reporter Neil Ashton, possibly from years of watching England from a privileged position, possibly from being drawn back to that same old narrative that sells.

GettyImages-986397622.jpg“At the full-time whistle against Belgium, I felt flat. Matt talks about tournament momentum and why that should affect Harry Kane, but I definitely felt there was a change of mood when the final whistle went.”

The Belgium defeat has created such a disparity even among those within the media, that being deemed ‘philosophical’ by some is being viewed as ‘using one’s brain’ by others.

Southgate was forced to backtrack on his outspoken belief that the English media should seek to act in the country’s best interest, and by rephrasing his views the following day, his next press conference will be one to monitor with a close eye.

He’ll be asked if he feels the media’s reaction to the Belgium defeat was fair. There’ll be several loaded questions looking backwards rather than forwards. It will be the biggest test of his tenure, getting the likes of the Mirror’s John Cross, who claimed his ‘halo has slipped’ back onside. But should he really be doing this when he has a last 16 match to focus on?

He won’t take kindly to some of the views shared in today’s national newspapers, designed solely to put pressure on him and his players.

Jordan Pickford, who has the potential to become the world’s best goalkeeper, has been grossly victimised in some quarters for the way he made a save in the first half before not keeping out Adnan Januzaj’s fine winner.

GettyImages-986372186.jpg“We have to trust the strategy, but some of it was unnecessary,” continued Fifield.  “I can’t believe Harry Kane will have wanted to sit on that bench last night.” But should we be assuming that had he played, England would have won, Kane would have scored and avoided injury?

What was the greater risk? Where would the momentum be now had England lost their talisman despite beating the Belgians? Southgate has taken what could be his only chance at guiding England at a World Cup to do things his way.

“You’ve got that problem in training.” Again, Ashton is wide of the mark. When you get to the sharp end of the World Cup, ask any player, and you don’t have this problem in training. You’re playing matches and recuperating in between.

When have you heard of a player getting injured in training at this stage of a World Cup? You could probably count them on one hand, in 21 editions. Metatarsal injuries happen in games.

GettyImages-977042740.jpg“He’ll be chomping at the bit on Tuesday,” Fifield said of Kane. “He wants to be two, three goals ahead in this race for the Golden Boot, let alone propelling the team forward.”

He’s right about the first part, but why should Kane’s desire to win an individual trophy come before the prime objective of creating the best potential set of circumstances for the team to win the ultimate prize?

The more astute point being lost is that England, whoever is in defence, have looked suspect at the back. Harry Maguire and John Stones are vulnerable. These are not Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. Both they and Pickford are a work in progress, and we all know this.

If Radamel Falcao is firing, that is why England will go out of the World Cup, not this tedious, phoney war seen in the past 24 hours… between the national team, the media and its favourite narrative.

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Loading up, Ashton asks, “Do we sometimes see that managers get carried away? That they meddle and start getting too clever, mixing it up, making too many changes and tactics along the way?”

“We just need to place out trust in him,” replied Fifield. “Because if we win the Colombia game –”

“We’ll be back to where we were,” finished Ashton. To where, exactly? To football coming home?

It is the media who shouldn’t be getting carried away. Southgate has kept his head when many appear to have reverted to type in losing theirs.

France happy to go under the radar, so why is momentum so important for England?

In 19 days’ time, two sides will walk out at the Luzhnicki Stadium to contest the World Cup final.

The shadow of France’s winning team of 20 years ago still hangs over the class of 2018, but after failing to excite the Moscovites in their first visit, few should discount their chances of returning to take up one of the dressing rooms on July 15.

Few in Paris will see a soporific draw with Denmark as diminishing their hopes of glory in Moscow next month, when other nations have feared that momentum might be lost with a poor showing in a dead rubber such as this.

A depleted France full of players who may never start another game out in Russia were unspectacular, like they were in a turgid stalemate with Switzerland at the end of the Euro 2016 group stage, but they ultimately grew in stature and were denied in the final by Portugal.

Denmark were in no real rush themselves, despite over half an hour in the second half when in the knowledge that it would take three unanswered Australian goals against Peru to threaten their progress.

This was game 37 of a thrilling World Cup that had been littered with controversy and incident, but there was nothing of the sort in the Russian capital, nothing to break the stand-off, the sense of ennui.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia“Australia have 25 minutes to find three goals, it’s some run-chase,” quipped the unimpressed Clive Tyldesley on ITV.

The Danish coach Age Hareide had appeared to light the blue touch paper by claiming France were nothing special beforehand, and their opponents did very little to disprove that opinion.

This was a forewarning for Belgium’s clash with England in Kaliningrad, but should Didier Deschamps be concerned? Denmark themselves were reluctant to break from their rigid defensive lines against a weakened team, but they are not expected to advance deep into the tournament.

The debate is over whether France can flick the switch. Time will tell if their failure to find any rhythm and refusal to show imagination in reaching the knockout stages will have a knock-on effect.

Despite the chorus of boos at the full-time whistle, Deschamps is still on track to join an elite group of men to win the tournament both as a player and manager. Only Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany have done so.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaStill the critics voice their doubts, with Zinedine Zidane and Arsene Wenger out of work, but after six years in charge, this was Deschamps’ 80th match at the helm, more than any French coach since the Second World War.

He won’t be cowed into entertaining at all costs, and by producing a swashbuckling victory over a second-string Belgium on Thursday, England could just as easily sleepwalk into a sea of trouble when they have the luxury of choosing a more calculated approach.

The Danes knocked France out of the World Cup when they arrived in Japan and South Korea as champions in 2002 – their only victory in their last seven encounters – but they didn’t look like improving that record here.

There was no Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe in the starting line-up but France are hardly short of options. They needed just a point to top the group and the Danish assistant John Dahl Tomlinson was listening in via radio to events between Australia and Peru 1,500km away in Sochi.

He will have removed his earpiece long before the end, but despite it being immediate from kick-off that Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen would line up in midfield in a defensive formation, Denmark made a bright start.

Andreas Cornelius, once of Cardiff City, won his first aerial duel to find Martin Braithwaite but the Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci waved away his appeal for a penalty under the challenge from Presnel Kimpembe.

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A fortuitous French win against the Australians followed by a far from convincing victory over Peru had hardly set the pulses racing for one of the pre-tournament favourites and stray passes in the opening 10 minutes, whilst a precursor for what was to come, initially gave the Danes further encouragement.

But France finally enjoyed a nice pattern of play with added penetration as Olivier Giroud won a corner after Lucas Hernandez went to ground with Henrik Dalsgaard for company. Thomas Lemar’s set piece was glanced harmlessly wide by Raphael Varane.

News filtered through that Andre Carrillo had given already-eliminated Peru the lead against Australia. The pockets of red voiced their approval, the pressure eased despite another penalty appeal after Djibril Sidibe’s cross struck the hand of Mathias Jorgensen from point-blank range.

A wonderful cross from Cornelius from a Denmark breakaway saw a combination of Steve Mandanda and Hernandez do just enough to thwart Christian Eriksen at his feet, before Ousmane Dembele shot a yard wide of Kasper Schmeichel’s post, but neither keeper were forced to excel with both teams knowing they were safely qualified with a low-key draw.

Momentum was frequently lost as Denmark slammed the door shut through their use of five defenders. France looked to the flanks given Giroud’s aerial threat, but both Sidibe and Hernandez struggled to find him.

The best chance of the half appeared to fall to Giroud, but it came after Antoine Griezmann had already been flagged for offside before the Chelsea striker blazed over.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

A tepid opening 45 minutes ended with Jorgensen cynically hauling down the Atletico Madrid man on the halfway line. Ricci wouldn’t even allow the free-kick to be taken, almost out of anger at the poor quality on show.

Into the second period and Paulo Guerrero doubled Peru’s lead, which threatened to kill this simmering contest stone dead. But a spill from Mandanda from Eriksen’s dipping free-kick very nearly presented an opening to Cornelius before the former Crystal Palace stopper recovered just in time.

Substitute Nabil Fekir lashed a shot into the side-netting before Mbappe was brought on for the last knockings, but it appeared a deal had been struck between both managers.

Giroud backed into Simon Kjaer seeking a penalty, but the match official waved play on. After the farce of Monday night, this was a game that craved a moment of VAR drama, like Sweden versus South Korea had done so earlier in the tournament.

The Russian neutrals began to jeer with 10 minutes remaining. Nobody would get hurt if it remained 0-0, but this was a victim of circumstance. The chance to store some energy would always be taken when it was clear Peru would defeat Australia in Sochi.

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The twinkling toes of Mbappe nearly presented France with a late winner but Christensen snuffed out the danger as discontent showered down from the stands at the full-time whistle.

But this was job done for France, who had created very little momentum in their first two games to feel that any was significantly lost.

If Deschamps’ side return to Moscow in a little under three weeks, the joke will be on those who sought swiftly to erase this gentle snore-fest from their memories.

The obvious argument is that England should seek to now avoid this apparent stagnation in their final group game, but it is just as presumptuous to claim that they, like Croatia later on Tuesday, haven’t peaked too soon if they do take the foot off the gas.

The unspoken truth is that Gareth Southgate is currently the English media’s puppet, swift to backtrack when showing any signs of speaking out last week following Steve Holland’s team-sheet “leak”.

Both he and those who attend his press conferences appear determined to stay on message when it comes to facing Belgium this week, highlighting the need to seek nothing but victory despite the obvious pitfalls which might come with falling on the tougher side of the draw.

Southgate has gone further, referencing England’s solitary victory in knockout tournaments in 16 years, but the unsubstantiated euphoria – seen in the cringeworthy beer-throwing gardens – created by wins over Tunisia and Panama should not mask the fact that this young side might in fact benefit from taking France’s route of going under the radar.

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.

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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.

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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.

Pickford is the leader of the pack at England and Everton… he’s the kingpin with the world at his feet

When Jordan Pickford was unveiled as Everton’s new £30million goalkeeper 12 months ago, there were more than a few who baulked at the transfer fee for a 23-year-old with just 31 Premier League appearances under his belt.

It was a club-record deal at the time [Gylfi Sigurdsson would break it later last summer when he signed for £45m from Swansea], and remains a British record for a goalkeeper.

He is the third most expensive shot-stopper in the world, behind Ederson [Benfica to Manchester City, £34.7m] and Gianluigi Buffon [Parma to Juventus, £33m], but Pickford was unflappable, keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs during a season of turmoil at Everton.

“In football you get only one shot and I’ve always taken it,” Pickford said after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Nigeria at Wembley. “I don’t show any pressure on the pitch, I show I can play out from the back and I don’t feel nervous.

“There’s so many good goalkeepers in England you’ve got to be at your very best [to be selected].

“We’ve got likes of Popey, me, Butland, [Ben] Foster and [Alex] McCarthy, so there’s a lot of competition. But I can only focus on myself and as a goalkeeper you’ve got to have mental toughness – that’s something I’m good at.”

England v Nigeria - International Friendly

It’s not something that can be said for every talented professional. Davy Klaassen was brought to Everton on the same day as Pickford – June 15, 2017 –for £24m from Ajax, but their careers have headed in opposite directions.

The midfielder featured three times as a substitute this year under former manager Sam Allardyce, and he missed out on the recent Holland squad for international friendlies against Slovakia and Italy while Everton are in talks with Turkish club Besiktas over an initial season-long loan move.

Pickford merely continued his ascent with performances that at times kept defeats respectable, making an early impression as he played a vital role in the club booking their place in the Europa League group stages courtesy of his penalty save in the third qualifying round second leg against Hadjuk Split.

Unsurprisingly, he cleared up at the end-of-season club awards night in Liverpool, winning a hat-trick of prizes: the Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season and Young Player of the Season at a ceremony at Philharmonic Hall.

It has led to Pickford being linked with a move to Bayern Munich ahead of the World Cup, with the Bavarians reportedly seeing him as a long-term replacement for Manuel Neuer.

Everton v Newcastle United - Premier League

A host of elite European clubs will be monitoring his performances given the now-annual speculation of a goalkeeping merry-go-round intensified by Thibaut Courtois’ likely departure from Chelsea.

New Everton manager Marco Silva stressed at his first press conference this week that he will try to attract ‘big names’ to the club this summer, but the Portuguese should not be caught out by the interest in his No 1.

The likely departure of Joel Robles after five years this summer offers the chance to bring in a deputy that can push Pickford onto the next level.

It has the potential to be problematic given the difficulty of usurping the 24-year-old as Everton first-choice keeper, but contingency plans must be put in place if the vultures begin to circle.

Pickford, who has been designated the No 1 shirt by Southgate, is still short of being world class and he will relish a greater challenge next season if Silva can find the ideal understudy, given that he has thrived with competition for his place in England’s side.

Everton v Southampton - Premier League

At 25 and with seven caps to his name, Jack Butland has been on the international scene as part of England senior squads for far longer than Pickford.

He was named as one of the standby options at Euro 2012 before being called up for the tournament in Poland and Austria after John Ruddy sustained a broken finger.

He was overlooked as the third-choice option by Roy Hodgson in favour of Fraser Forster at the last World Cup and a fractured ankle ruled him out of the European Championships two years ago.

Butland is now fit and can take little blame for Stoke City’s relegation from the Premier League last season, but Southgate has made his decision.

The visit of Costa Rica to Elland Road on Thursday could bring an eighth cap, but Pickford has won the battle for the No 1 spot in the opening group match in Volgograd against Tunisia.

England Media Access

Joe Hart’s absence allows the Everton man to excel without the shadow of the 75-capped keeper behind him. Hart was perhaps spared the humiliation of having played throughout the qualifying campaign only to lose his place when the tournament gets underway.

But Butland has been waiting for his moment to replace him as England’s No 1. Now, he could be destined for another period as a deputy at international level, at a crossroads in his career similar to where Pickford was this time last year.

While Harry Kane has been handed the armband, Southgate has spoken of the need to be a team of leaders, and Pickford’s command of his penalty area makes him an England captain in waiting.

October 2015 was the last time Raheem Sterling scored for England, 20 games ago. Dele Alli’s international record in front of goal is little better, meaning the Three Lions look set to be reliant on two players above all in Russia.

Other than Kane’s consistency as a striker capable of scoring for club and country, it is Pickford and the question of whether he can keep the opposition at bay that will determine how far Southgate’s men progress this summer.

England Media Access

In his first two international caps, the former Sunderland keeper kept shutouts against Germany and Holland – impressing with the ball at his feet and his distribution on both occasions – and he appears a man capable of taking the increasing demands in his stride.

Ten clean sheets and penalty saves against Hajduk Split and West Ham this term are further indication he is tournament-ready should England progress to the knockout stages.

Pickford has worked with Southgate before at Under-21 level; the understanding and faith in one another cannot be overstated, and he is a man confident in his own capabilities.

Having his club goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson fulfilling the same role at England will further benefit his development. Pickford has been seen working on shot-stopping drills that alternate with improving his footwork at St Georges’ Park, like he had done at Finch Farm throughout the season.

Such is the player’s self-confidence, he revealed last week his willingness to take a penalty if England face a shoot-out at the tournament.

This is England’s most inexperienced squad at a tournament since 1962, but the man from Washington, Tyne and Wear, appears ready to take the weight of the world on his shoulders.

What should England’s squad numbers be at the World Cup?

On Monday, Gareth Southgate will announce his final 23-man squad heading to Russia for the World Cup. The final warm-up game takes place on Thursday against Costa Rica, with the remaining four stand-by options training with the squad for the duration of the week.

Belgium have given captain Vincent Kompany every chance to declare his fitness after being retained in their 23-man squad announced on Monday morning despite sustaining a groin injury in the 0-0 friendly draw with Portugal.

FIFA rules stipulate that teams can use up to 24 hours before their opening World Cup match to announce their final squad in exceptional circumstances, meaning should England suffer a similar misfortune to one of their players against the Costa Ricans, Southgate can in theory hold off his final call until June 17, the day before facing Tunisia in Volgograd.

Southgate decided not to replace the injured James Tarkowski from his stand-by list, given the number of centre-back options he has at his disposal in the squad, but Adam Lallana, Tom Heaton, Lewis Cook and Jake Livermore are all waiting in the wings should there be another setback to those already on the plane.

England v Nigeria - International Friendly

But what should the squad numbers be? There’s a flexibility allowed by FIFA when it comes to numbers one to 11, while 12 to 23 are strictly based on position. For many fans in Russia and watching back home, these are minor details.

The players themselves, however, will take huge pride in the number they are given, and they could also be a nod to Southgate’s preferred starting XI.

Shirt number connoisseurs will appreciate the significance of today’s 4pm announcement with an upsurge in shirt sales to follow with fans able to act safe in the knowledge of which player shall be wearing what number in the tournament.

The big talking points

  • Do you give Walker No 2 or No 4?
  • Does Alli wear No 10?
  • Which of the likely starters will wear a number outside of 1-11?
  • Will England stick with giving No 19 to a star in the making?

FBL-FRIENDLY-ENG-NGR

Here’s a suggestion…

  1. Jordan Pickford
  2. Kieran Trippier
  3. Danny Rose
  4. Kyle Walker
  5. John Stones
  6. Gary Cahill
  7. Raheem Sterling
  8. Jordan Henderson
  9. Harry Kane
  10. Dele Alli
  11. Jesse Lingard
  12. Trent Alexander-Arnold
  13. Jack Butland
  14. Phil Jones
  15. Eric Dier
  16. Harry Maguire
  17. Fabian Delph
  18. Ashley Young
  19. Ruben Loftus-Cheek
  20. Marcus Rashford
  21. Jamie Vardy
  22. Nick Pope
  23. Danny Welbeck

Selection explained

Pickford has won his battle to be England’s No 1, which will be all-but confirmed when he is handed the jersey this afternoon.

Elsewhere, Southgate may keep opponents guessing by handing Walker the No 2 shirt, conventionally worn by the right-back, even though he should stick with the Manchester City defender on the right side of a three-man defence.

England need pace at the back, and so Walker could prove one of the discoveries of the tournament in a more central role, enabling Trippier to take the No 2 jersey.

Danny Rose is the only conventional No 3 in the squad, but he is not guaranteed a start, so a case can be made to give the shirt to Ashley Young. But Young’s attacking instincts make him a far more comfortable fit in at 18 – a number he wears at Manchester United.

Another player who will fancy his chances of making the starting XI against the Tunisians but would be comfortable with a bigger squad number is Eric Dier.

The versatile midfielder wears 15 for Tottenham, and with Walker taking the No 4 kept traditionally for those playing at the base of midfield, Dier follows Young in wearing his club number.

England v Nigeria - International Friendly

England’s shortage of wide players means Fabian Delph at 17 is the only combination that makes for a slightly jarring fit, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s pick would be in keeping with selecting a talented young midfielder in Paul Gascoigne’s iconic No 19 jersey.

Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole have all previously worn 19, but there have been several bizarre allocations as a result of late call-ups in the past.

Gary Cahill was ruled out of Euro 2012 after the official squad numbers were announced, meaning his replacement Martin Kelly took the No 5 shirt.

In 2002, stand-by option Trevor Sinclair ended up being No 4 because of an injury to Danny Murphy, who himself was only a replacement for the crocked Steven Gerrard.

It means that come the final 24 hours before England’s opening game in Russia, there could yet be one of Cook or Livermore handed a 1-11 shirt.

Now that would be a quiz question many years from now if England went on to lift the World Cup this summer.