The final friendly before England zipped off to Russia for the World Cup was just two days away. Critical matches lay ahead. They would be training today. Wouldn’t they?
No. Instead, England’s 23-man World Cup squad spent the 5 June 2018 arranged individually around the huge futsal hall that makes up part of the St George’s Park complex. A table, a microphone, a player. And either side of him, another table, another microphone, another player. It was an NFL-style press day. Hundreds of journalists running around a sort of super-exclusive summer fête, ignoring the tombola if he was talking to someone else, and instead making their way to whichever stall wasn’t getting quite so much attention.
(You’re welcome, if Covid had until now erased summer fêtes from your memory.)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek threw some moves for CBBC, but not all the players were entertaining viewers and listeners and readers in that sense. Others were entertaining testing questions by offering their perspectives on difficult societal issues. It marked the beginning of England opening up to the media. The two years since have already shown how England as a unit and particularly England as a group of people have benefited from this change in approach.
England’s players spent an afternoon chatting and joshing with interviewers from all corners of the broadcast world. The idea that they were putting on a front to paint themselves in a good light is implausible. This was a case of 23 men quite clearly enjoying something a bit different. And in response to giving the media its best ever access to England, what did the media actually say about all this? Unsurprisingly, it went down a storm. See: quid pro quo.
One could be forgiven for thinking the work this England setup has done in shoving players in front of a camera or mic at any opportunity is a little irresponsible. However, it simply rights a wrong that has existed since at least the mid-1990s. If you hide footballers from the press, they’ll start to hide naturally. What manifested was that confident, mature figures like Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville and David Beckham would run scared of saying anything remotely noteworthy in press conferences and interviews.
Had things not changed, the deep and impactful words of Danny Rose, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling might never have been uttered.
People have a real knack of seeing through the superficial. When England players of a decade ago said little, the journalist — to reach their word-count — would have to say a lot. These days, it isn’t the press but the players who dictate proceedings in England press conferences and one-on-one interviews. They have a conversation, where the footballer says what they want to say, and where the journalist writes what the footballer said. No stings. No one playing games. It’s pretty simple stuff. But clearly not simple enough to have been the way of things for previous Englands. And therefore, The FA, Gareth Southgate, and England’s Head of Communications Andy Walker deserve immense credit.
Nearly a year on from the press conference that changed it all, I was sat in a much more conventional one. Harry Kane was speaking to the BBC, Sky and others about upcoming Euro qualifiers against the Czechs and Montenegro. Kane looked an articulate statesperson who didn’t bat questions away, but rather returned them with the answers they deserved and required. Willing to engage, not desperate for it to end. Andy Walker sat beside him — patient, assured, in control.
After the conference ended, I made my way to the very room where England’s 23 World Cup semi-finalists had written the media’s stories for them, the previous summer. The tables and mics had gone — replaced by a couple of sofas in the middle of the room. Sitting on them were Harry Maguire, Michael Keane and U21s player Dwight McNeil, politely speaking with BBC Sport’s Football Daily podcast.
Sat halfway up the tiered seating that surrounded the perimeter was Callum Wilson, waiting to be interviewed. The Times’ Chief Football Writer Henry Winter got up from one of the sofas where he had been typing away frantically. He approached Wilson, reminded the then-Bournemouth man who he was, and they started catching up like two friends who rarely see much of each other these days. Trust and access that have been sorely lacking in previous years.
Even the official England channels have been party to it. The YouTube channel aired a daily interview chat show during the World Cup, where one member of the squad would banter with the show’s host for twenty minutes or so, engage with fans on social media, answer questions, and even receive surprise calls from loved ones back home. When they went off air, were the journalists and reporters told politely to clear off? Not exactly — many stuck around. Some were filmed playing darts and tenpin bowling midway through the tournament with Dele, Ashley Young and Fabian Delph.
Are England training sessions totally and utterly confidential still? No, that’s changed too. For the past two years, some have been livestreamed and made available through the team’s channels on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. That feeds through to the fans. England players are more relatable to supporters if they are more regularly seen, heard or read about. It’s no coincidence then that England are as popular now (in an era of club football domination) as they have been in a very long time indeed, and not just because of a successful couple of years on the pitch.
The phrase, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ comes sharply into focus. England and The FA have given players the chance to act in the spotlight as the people they truly are behind the scenes, voice what they really think, and take as long as they need in order to do so effectively.
The FA rightly get commended for taking this risk. The players get to loosen up and be themselves, not running scared of ‘messing up’ when answering difficult questions. Finally, the media actually have things to report — things that paint both The FA and England stars in a good light. It’s been a PR masterclass that has to go down as a win-win-win situation.
All Photos: Getty Images