Now they are free in Krakow, England spirit is shining through
22:46 GMT, 22 June 2012
Call it cabin fever. Tournament football plays strange tricks on the mind. A closed, insular environment; long, dull days without relief or distractions. It overtook England's base in South Africa two years ago, caused rifts and eruptions, and ultimately contributed to World Cup failure.
The good news is that lessons were learned. No more isolation, no more football, football, football. The meltdown in Rustenburg has been widely misinterpreted as little more than a squad demand for lager after matches. It ran far deeper than that.
English players do not need to be fuelled by beer, but they should not be sapped by boredom. Roy Hodgson is responsible for England's transformation on the field, but the Football Association, and Fabio Capello, were the architects of the revolution off it: the new approaches going merrily hand in hand.
All together now: England appear a more content group than in previous tournaments
Hodgson has helped revive team spirit, but the inclusive team base with its city centre location has helped foster a loving home environment.
Whatever tomorrow's quarter-final with Italy brings, this tournament has created a template for how England will address future competitions. The engagement, the openness will last to Brazil and beyond.
As England returned, victorious, from Donetsk this week, Adrian Bevington, managing director of Club England found himself going through customs with Ashley Cole. He asked if everything was all right. Cole said it was fine. Bevington pushed for a little more. Feedback on the team base, perhaps.
The choice of hotel, city, the location just off the main square, the training facilities. Anything that could have been better, what could be improved No, said Cole, it was all good.
Happy campers: Cole is England's most experienced player and is happy with the current setup
Nothing needed changing, no upgrades or rethinks. Everything was exactly as it should be. Contrary to his public perception, Cole is not considered particularly high maintenance by those around the England camp. Head down, does his job, 7/10, minimum. He is, however, England's most senior player. If there was a problem with England's approach to the 2012 European Championships, he would say.
So this has been a landmark for English football. The end of the culture of trying too hard. The desire to protect the players, to remove all distractions, had created a different raft of problems.
England's tournament bases were becoming increasingly extreme. Clinging to the west of France by the fingertips in 1998, on an island surrounded by a moat in 2002, halfway up a mountain in 2006, the bitter end was the Royal Bafokeng complex in Phokeng, near Rustenburg, with England cooped up like the Torrance family in The Shining in 2010.
Out on the town: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hart, Lescott and Cole take time out on Krakow's main square
It was decided that in Krakow it would be different. England players have been spotted around town, out for a coffee, in disparate groups watching football in the evening. One pizza restaurant party included Cole, Andy Carroll, Joe Hart, Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Players from different clubs, different age groups, a few young Liverpool lads, but nothing that suggested a clique.
Around the corner, Steven Gerrard was watching the same game in a hotel with friends. This is how Test teams get through the long winter tours. They allow players freedom to choose their own pals and dining clubs, from inside and outside the group.
An England cricketer might be found in a restaurant with some team-mates, a couple of pals from college, or his family. Even the odd journalist, in some cases.
England's new regime owes much more to domestic club practices, too, as Scott Parker indicated. 'It's definitely an easier environment,' he said.
Great Scott: Parker has lauded the atmosphere within the England camp ahead of Sunday's quarter-final
'I've been in a few England squads, Roy's my third manager now and it's definitely a lot more relaxed, not as intense. You can see that the way the players are, the way we're preparing, where we're based.
'We understand we're here to play a massive competition and we recognise that much in training, but as soon as training's finished, you're back at the hotel and if you want to go out and have a walk and a coffee, you can. It's not football, football, football, football. At your clubs, when I'm playing at Tottenham Hotspur, I have that break from the game. When I leave training, I walk out the door and get into my car, I go and speak with my wife, speak with my friends, pick up the kids. It's not all football. But certainly before, whenever I've been around England, that's been how it was, constantly. And you're in such a tight environment anyway that it doesn't help. So we have intensity in training, in preparation and leading into games – but straight after we have another side.'
There is, of course, a balance. Near to England's hotel base is an Irish bar with a rooftop terrace. On the first night here, it was still going into the small hours.
Hair we go: Rooney celebrates his winning goal as England beat Ukraine and top the group
Representations were made to the mayor's office and a compromise reached: the bar stays open but the outdoor terrace shuts at a reasonable hour. The last massage booking allowed for England players is 11pm. After that, and on the terrace of the Irish bar too, it is time gentlemen please.
Already plans are being made to recreate this relaxed mood in Brazil in 2014 (this is not arrogance, every nation plans ahead). Ideally, England will be based in Rio De Janeiro – although that will present a further challenge as it is a host venue and likely to attract significant numbers of fans, which Krakow is not – but the location has to be right.
Copacabana is out – England may as well try to win a World Cup in Spain from Benidorm – and Ipanema looks a little lively, too.
Next along the strip, however, is Barra, which ticks both boxes as an antidote to boredom without doubling as party central. Other cities, including Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte are being considered – not least because the brochures that have gone out to teams include no proposed bases in Rio – but while the north is regarded as beautiful, the FA feel it could turn into another Rustenberg, slow and quiet with players unable to escape from the pressures of the tournament.
What's happening in Krakow is that English football is returning to its roots
'Breakfast, train, lunch, bed, dinner, bed,' as Wayne Rooney described the average day at the last World Cup.
Of course, there is no prize for best conceived team headquarters. Holland were also in Krakow, and looked to have snapped up the prime location in the city, on the river, near the town centre, engaged without having an Irish bar rocking until all hours when the players were trying to sleep. Yet, three defeats and an early exit, and who cares
Without doubt, results are currently vindicating the FA's policy. Yet what is also significant is Hodgson's contribution. This is the closest regime to the one put in place by Terry Venables before the 1996 European Championship, and Hodgson the closest manager.
English players feel very comfortable with an English coach, but experience helps. Venables was right in saying this is not a job for a young man.
Glenn Hoddle and Steve McClaren got the job too early, while Capello struggled with elements of England's football culture. Hodgson knew enough to appoint Gary Neville, but also to patiently hear out his ten new ideas an hour, then pick the one that works.
Right-hand man: Hodgson has sought to employ Lewington on a permanent basis
Everyone remembers Bryan Robson in Venables regime, but the true lieutenants were his long-standing coaches and allies, such as Don Howe and chief scout Ted Buxton.
Neville is the marquee name from Hodgson's backroom staff, but Ray Lewington is the man he has sought to employ full-time. This is a staff that understands nuance.
Capello, for instance, was so thrown by the conversation about being allowed a beer after games that beer suddenly appeared on the table with dinner before England's matches, to the utter bemusement of the players.
Hodgson would have appreciated there was no issue beyond winding down, just as Venables resolved an issue about chips at dinner – players had been sneaking out to McDonald's under a previous regime – by ordering the chef to produce huge, thick cut chips to greatly reduce the fat intake.
Venables may have experienced his greatest success in Spain, and he loved and studied Dutch football, but at heart he was an English manager. So is Hodgson, despite his time in Scandinavia, Switzerland and Italy. And what is happening in Krakow is that English football is returning to its roots, realising that long hours of contemplation on game reserves, or remote Japanese islands, do not feed the soul of an Englishman like a pizza in the town square in front of a big screen TV showing the football.
Good play is still all that will beat Italy, but at least this time we will not beat ourselves.