It was the summer of 1996, the European Championships were in the offing in England and everyone was in a party spirit. Particularly England’s footballers.
Gareth Southgate spent three days in Magaluf with his Aston Villa team-mates when the season finished, managing to get a run in every morning, although that was, he says, more a jog back to his hotel as the sun rose, rather than a serious sprint along the Punta Ballena.
What went on during that trip is less known than what happened with his England team-mates a few weeks later, who went on that infamous pre-Euros money-making tour to the Far East which ended up with Paul Gascoigne strapped to a leather “Dentist Chair” in a Hong Kong nightclub while a barman poured Drambuie and tequila down his throat. Southgate was on the tour, but advised to swerve that particular night out by Stuart Pearce.
Yet that tournament, reaching the semi-finals at home, turned out to be England’s most successful since they won the World Cup in 1966 and, while he hopes his players are either better behaved or more adept at not getting caught (even harder in the smartphone era), not only has Southgate picked a young, fresh World Cup squad he is taking a fresh, relaxed approach to their preparations.
“I’m not interested in what they do over the next few days,” Southgate said. “It’s four weeks before we have a game. Before Euro ’96 I had three days in Magaluf with Aston Villa so it would be a bit hypocritical to discuss what the correct preparation was. We’ve got a period now where the players who finished last week are on holiday. For me that’s important, they’ve had a long season. The mental freshness is key. They’ve got little programmes to be working through. The days are gone where players come back to preseason stones overweight, it just doesn’t happen.
“Everything in a player’s life now is fill this bloody form in, how do you feel? There’s a danger we overfill them with professionalism and doing the right thing.”
This is Southgate’s philosophy and he will be defined by it: picking a free-spirited squad and not treating them like children; no rules or regulations, no banned ketchup or forced abstinence. He’s handing them a long piece of rope, and praying they do not start tying each other to chairs and tipping spirits down their throats.
Times are changing, young players are ageing. Many of them don’t drink. Perhaps there was more to Southgate leaving out Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere, two players who have been papped on many an occasion with a drink in one hand or a fag in the other. If Southgate is going to let his players loose, he cannot afford for the more suggestible ones to be led astray.
“I feel that the players we’ve picked are free, they’ve got a point to prove, they’re hungry,” Southgate said. “They’re not where they want to be yet. Talking to them individually they have loads they want to do in their careers. That brings energy, that brings competition right across the squad.
“They’ll have opportunity to see their family between games, we will give them some downtime when we’re there. We don’t know until we’re actually into the tournament how easy it’s going to be to step outside the hotel with security and everything.
“Our feel of the town we’re staying is that it’s not going to be full of people who’ve travelled for the matches. It’s an unlikely destination for that. They should be able to go down to the sea front and have some freedom around that. In terms of how they occupy their time in the hotel, a lot of them are young kids really, it’ll be Fortnite or whatever it is. All the other games that they play, they interact well, they have good social things and we will try and make allowances for that.”
He is keen for players to be interacting with each other, rather than permanently with their phones out and heads down. When the squad trained with Royal Marine Commandos last summer they discussed leaving their phones in hotel rooms at mealtimes, but Southgate is making no strict demands.
“Sometimes if they’ve got their phones they spend time looking at videos together and interacting,” he said. “If they haven’t got it they rush back to their rooms. So I don’t think we’ll have hard and fast rules. We have certain moments where you’re just approaching training and they sit down together. There’s a cut-off. But I don’t like loads of rules, the players are responsible enough, they know what’s expected.”
Southgate is not even intervening with aspects of modern players he does not recommend, such as social media. He cannot understand why they go on it, when a lot of what they receive back is abuse, but as long as it does not affect their football it is, he concedes, up to them.
“It’s good for the players to communicate with the fans,” he said. “I think it’s always important that everything you put out in writing can be misconstrued. And when you’re emotional it’s not a good time to do it.
“Personally I’m not sure there’s value to reading comments that come in. It comes back to what creates pressure, or what creates misery in your life. Generally I think there’s a lot of social media that can be negative, so why would you invite that into your life? But I can’t ban them from looking at it – because who knows what they’re doing when they go to their room.”
Who knows what would’ve got out from that trip to Magaluf had smartphones and social media been around 22 years ago.