Much was made earlier this week of photographs being released of the England players larking about on inflatable unicorns in their hotel pool the day after their victory over Tunisia. There was Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford, Jesse Lingard and Kieran Trippier - all smiling - having a race using the inflatables as part of their recovery session and it was portrayed as part of the new fun regime around England.
Except it was not. It was not even the first time the unicorns had been used having made an appearance at previous England camps under Roy Hodgson.
The key difference was that Gareth Southgate was happy for the photographs to be used in the media which was another smart move by him and is a consequence of a word that is at the heart of how England have approached this tournament. That word is culture.
Culture is about changing how players feel when they play for England, to enjoy and embrace it and make them look forward to being called up and no longer be fearful of wearing that Three Lions shirt and thinking about what might go right rather than wrong. And if it does go wrong? Well, what is the worst that can happen? That is the buy-in.
In fairness this work was started some time ago through the use of a company called Lane 4 who devised psychological ploys - including games and role-playing and beginning to involve players in decision-making - to help. But outside consultants are being phased out with, crucially, the Football Association taking it ‘in-house’ with the significant appointment of Dr Pippa Grange who started working for them full-time in January and is out here in Russia.
Grange has the convoluted title of the FA’s head of people and team development. Her role in Repino is clear: work on building up the psychological resistance of the players as part of that support being “embedded” in the squad. Importantly it is also far more subtle than what happened in Brazil four years ago when the renowned psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who had worked with Liverpool, was parachuted in and Hodgson, who appeared unsure with someone else’s idea, told the players they could talk to him if they needed to. Unsurprisingly that invitation was not taken up and Peters had little to do.
It is Grange, though, who studied sports psychology at Loughborough and spent 20 years working in Australian sport, who is making clear the importance of culture. In her book “Ethical Leadership in Sport: What’s your Endgame?” she wrote: “The reason culture is on the agenda is that the connection between it and performance is being more fully recognised in sport. There is a new emphasis being placed on the environments in which athletes live and the systems in which they operate as determinants of ethical behaviour.”
Grange added: “There is a dawning understanding that it will take more than the carrots or sticks to get people to keep performing and to keep striving for excellence. Athletes like everyone else want something to believe in, a vision that they can invest in and an organisation that they are proud to belong to.”
Vision and pride and belief - and creating the right environment, the right culture. This is also being overseen by Dave Reddin, also ‘embedded’ with the team in Repino, the FA’s head of team strategy and performance, who previously worked in rugby union, and his job has included recruiting the right staff. It was helped when the FA, under chief executive Martin Glenn, who hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the mental “brittleness” of the players after the Euro 2016, made the important decision to budget for more full-time employees, rather than second people from clubs. It meant the staff had a greater vested interest and the cost was justified because they work across all the England age groups which also means players coming through know them.
Most of Grange’s work is subtle - and that is hugely significant. She does not tend to work directly with players and spends time discussing with Southgate and his coaches about the work they do and their aims and how they might achieve them. A major part is about getting the players to be more open, to share their own personal stories, often talking in small groups, and by do so to shed a degree of inhibition. This can be helped with some of the games they play and, in this, the large Tottenham Hotspur contingent have had an influence: they introduced a party game called Werewolf, also known as Mafia, and the kids card game, Uno.
It helps that Southgate is in charge. There is something of the teacher about Southgate and, to be honest, the FA’s approach to this tournament has been to treat it as something of a school trip - very organised, very together and with lots of activities to occupy the players. To keep control but give the impression the players are being given far more freedom.
While there have also been lots of meetings, something players tend to complain about when things go wrong, Southgate has also impressed the squad with the way he has handled a number of issues and, perhaps, most relevantly, the mature and sensitive approach he took to the manufactured furore over Raheem Sterling’s gun tattoo. While thoughtfully backing Sterling, he also rebuked the player for turning up late for the squad get-together.
That buy-in has extended to a drive not to leak information and especially when it comes to team selection and tactics - something Grange believes is important also - with players now even involved in the process of working out tactical meetings and selected clips of the opposition for their team-mates to view. It is an extension of the leadership groups that were started under Hodgson but are now much more organised and ‘embedded’.
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Southgate has been something of a sponge of other sports. It is well-documented that he talks to cycling’s Sir Dave Brailsford and Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones from rugby but he has also been to see the short track speed skater Elise Christie to speak to her about her experiences. Christie had the crushing disappointment of crashing out of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and left without a medal, despite being a world champion. Southgate wanted to hear how that felt. England have slipped up so many times themselves in the past but at least, at last, they are learning and creating a culture.