Eighteen months ago I walked into the England Media Center for the very first time at their St George’s Park training base as an English journalist, not really knowing what to expect.
The course of this group until the final of the Euro was remarkable. Now here we are in Qatar, in a different continent, a different season and a totally different tournament (not to mention a few indifferent results in between), and it’s clear that despite so many changes, among the players, very few have exchange.
They’re still a very tight-knit team, very focused and very determined to make a statement against France on Saturday.
England are based in Al Wakrah, just over 10 miles from central Doha, with a beachfront hotel minutes from their training base at a local sports complex.
It’s very outdoors, so they spend a lot of time in the common areas, and especially by the pool and on the basketball court.
You may have seen the scenes as they returned from their 16th last win over Senegal, the carnival atmosphere created by the staff – would have worked before the players returned, with Jack Grealish telling us they too became fans England fees.
wolf and cats
Each day, after watching 15 minutes of training, we then get an exclusive player interview in our BBC Sport interview room in the media centre.
While we heard Mason Mount tell us about meeting his young niece here for the first time, with Callum Wilson admitting to ignoring a text from Alan Shearer and Phil Foden revealing his hair dye attempts at the summer Euros last had ruined his hair, I’m not sure any of our high-profile interviews failed to mention Wolf.
No, it’s not another pet like Dave the cat that John Stones and Kyle Walker have adopted – it’s the card game players play.
Luke Shaw gave us a detailed description of how it’s played – it appears to be a deception-based game, with players pretending to be villagers and the wolves having to hide their identities.
James Maddison told us about about 20 of the players who played there one night this week, Kalvin Phillips admitted he doesn’t usually participate but likes to watch the noises/reactions that come from the band, while Mason Mount given the Most Improved Player title. . They hope to be able to fool the French defense in the same way on Saturday as well.
(And in case you were wondering, some of the players have confirmed that they like real life animals too and they hope that Dave the cat can somehow return to England with them, although custody of the cat remains to be confirmed. )
‘Let me entertain you’
Last summer it was Ed Sheeran who serenaded the team – this year it’s Robbie Williams. The huge Port Vale fan and ex-Take That band member played in Doha this week and stopped by the Players Hotel the night before as a surprise.
Former Three Lions captain David Beckham also came through during the group stages – images of Bukayo Saka asking for a photo have done the rounds, but we’re told he wasn’t the only member of the squad. team to do so.
Bellingham has the “chatter”
There’s not a conversation in England right now that doesn’t involve Jude Bellingham and it’s the same on the training ground.
He was one of the first players we interviewed as part of our development in Iran. He said he saved his goal and duly delivered it by scoring the opener in the English tournament – but he clearly got the joke too.
Jack Grealish tells us that shortly after doing his Worm Dance celebration to fulfill a promise made to young fan Finlay, Bellingham tried to trick him into thinking he was offside.
He was also heard vehemently defending midfield partner Jordan Henderson – Henderson laughing that at 32 he has a 19-year-old defending him.
The way the teenager became central in a team that had previously reached a semi-final and a final speaks volumes, and shows, once again, the special atmosphere inside this English camp.
This time around there is not just hope, but more belief, that together they can make a statement against the World Cup holders this weekend.