Wayne Rooney was one of the last to arrive, pulling his luggage behind him as he made his way to the hotel lift. Kyle Walker, a doubt after being substituted during the North London derby, breezed through the lobby seemingly free of pain while speaking on his phone. Above on the mezzanine floor John Stones and interim coach Gareth Southgate were engaged in conversation.
It was arrivals day at St George’s Park and a sense of excitement was already palpable ahead of the oldest international fixture in the history of football. Whatever the outcome of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland at Wembley this aura of significance is to be welcomed in an epoch when representing your country is viewed as a step down from the rigours of the elite club environment.
The Scotland fixture is also important for the future of Southgate, whose temporary reign ends with the friendly against Spain on Tuesday. It is hard to see why the FA would not be convinced of Southgate’s permanent suitability should he send England into the winter retreat on top of their qualifying group and Spain packing on the back of a positive display.
Southgate would have us believe that the future is not his concern, that for him all that matters is fulfilling his obligation to sweep up after the abrupt departure of Sam Allardyce. “I have been tasked with preparing for these games,” he said. “I think it would be wrong to be distracted by anything else. My future is not important. ”
Being of a certain age, 46, Southgate recalls a time when a meeting with the Auld Enemy had real meaning. To get the fire started Southgate has commissioned a sepia highlights reel to convey the historical weight that attaches to the fixture, and the import of representing England.
“We have some black and white stuff, that I am not in. You play for England and you are only looking after the shirt for the next person to come through. So there is some humility about that. All of those people have worn those numbers before and that is a good message for our players.
“Every time you play for England you have a chance to make some history or to play in a game that people will remember forever and that’s incredibly powerful. I want them to be aware of that.
“I stood pitchside for the last game at Wembley which was an incredible atmosphere, probably as good as I’ve seen at the new Wembley. It’s a special fixture. These are the games that as a player, and a member of staff you want to be involved in. If I go back to my days working as broadcaster, viewing figures will be five times that of a Premier League game. Friday night will capture the imagination. What more could you want? I want to get the balance right with the players.
“It’s important they know the history of our shirt, through all of our age groups. That’s an important message, part of that is the history of the fixture, some of the great players who have played in it.
“The rivalry is obvious, the history between the two countries is obvious. We could build it up to be as big as we want. For us it’s a game of football that is going to help us qualify for a World Cup. That is the key.
“But we should embrace the emotion of the occasion. That’s what sport is about. You want to be involved on nights like this and as a player you have the chance be one of the faces in the future.”
l West Ham full-back Aaron Cresswell has been handed a first England call-up after being drafted in alongside Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. They come in for injured Leicester midfielder Danny Drinkwater and Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster.