Boot Camp: A week in the life of England's star prisoners

What does go on at England training get-togethers? Chicken and pasta, says Graeme Le Saux, whose insider's account shows killing time is an international's greatest challenge
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The Independent Football

"Good luck for your first England cap," said Kenny Dalglish, as I passed him on the way out. "I hope you get stuffed." Good old Kenny, a proud Scot who had done as much to develop my career as anyone since signing me from Chelsea the previous year. My selection by Terry Venables for his first game in charge of England, a friendly match against Denmark, was the start of an international career that lasted six years, one World Cup, three managers and 36 caps. I played my last international game in that Doomsday defeat to Germany at Wembley on 7 October, 2000, and what I experienced along the way helped to define my career as a footballer.

England training camps, such as the current national squad's 10-day stretch that will take in the World Cup qualifying games against Austria and Poland, are, theoretically, the ideal environment for any footballer. The best players in the country are gathered in a beautiful hotel with the prospect of representing England at the end of it all. I never lost the excitement of pulling on an England shirt but - after a week staying in a hotel with a group of people I did not really know - I felt at times more like a prisoner than a privileged guest.

So what actually happens between those training sessions? There's a lot of food and, at first, you really look forward to meal times (apparently prisoners have the same attitude). Then after a while you realise that even the most skilful cooks can only do a limited amount with chicken and pasta and I am afraid that I rather began to dread dinner. There was the option of having a massage and it was one that most players, to pass the time, would take up at least once a day. By the end of the week the most exhausted members of the party would be the overworked team masseurs.

There would be the occasional card school in the bar and at the 1998 World Cup we had race nights and golf days. We would have team meetings, and there would be videos to watch as part of our preparation but, in between, players would pass the time in their rooms watching television or listening to music. There was a lot of time to kill. When I broke into the squad only Blackburn's Alan Shearer and David Batty, with Tom Flowers occasionally, were also being called up by England. Although I knew my new team-mates because I had played against them it did help if you were surrounded by players from your own club, and when it came to the one with more representatives in the England team than any other Manchester United won easily. By the late 1990s, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes were all in the squad.

They spent their time together, especially meals. If you got down late to lunch and the only remaining seat was on the "United table" it was always a bit awkward. They, as any club players do, had their own jokes, their own discussions about their club and, although they were never unfriendly, it was a not an easy world for an outsider to walk into.

The best thing about the England camps was the training. I always felt that I came back from international duty a better, sharper player. For a start the sessions were intensely competitive because, unlike a club side working day-to-day, there were often a couple of places up for grabs and, if you were playing well, you could, in those days, leapfrog one of the more established players. That brought something extra to training. There was a greater level of quality because in those days you were probably playing with better players than those at your club side - although for some of those in the current team that may no longer be the case. The ball seemed to be passed around faster, moves did not break down as quickly and it would build my performance up to a peak over the course of the week. It was such a clear indicator of how much playing with good players improved an individual.

I came into Venables' first squad as a left-back and Terry immediately made a difficult decision in his first game in charge. He dropped Stuart Pearce, a legendary England international and a truly great player, and brought me in instead. I have to say that Stuart was absolutely magnificent about the situation and instead of making life difficult for me, which had happened when I had taken the place of other players at club sides, he could not have been more helpful.

It is no surprise to me that Stuart is enjoying such great success as the manager of Manchester City because even then he was brilliant in the way he dealt with me. He spoke to me about the game and told me that he thought I would do really well. It helped me immeasurably to prepare for such a big game and it really made me feel that I was being handed an enormous responsibility. On the pitch Stuart had a reputation for being ruthless, but he was also a tremendous professional. The magnanimous way in which Stuart handled that meant that when I was injured against Middlesbrough on 15 December, 1995 - a horrendous fracture and dislocation of my ankle - it meant that there was no doubt he would come back into the team for Euro 96. That was a bleak day for me.

The physiotherapist at Blackburn treated me in the immediate aftermath, with my foot pointing in more or less the wrong way, and I think he thought I would never play again. When I came round after my operation the first thing the nurse did was turn on the television - exactly at the time that England's group for Euro 96 was announced. They were grouped with Scotland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. I have to admit that I cried with the despair of missing those games.

Of the three managers under whom I played, I owe a great deal to Venables. His training sessions were always fun and enjoyable and he was a personable man. He also had some big characters in that squad - and none were bigger than Paul Gascoigne and Ian Wright - and those individuals can help you to get through the week. Often the initial enthusiasm of meeting up can die after two days as the monotony of those endless days really takes effect. The food is the same, the company is the same, the inside of your hotel room looks the same. It is hard to keep the momentum going towards the match. These characters did not have to be clowns but they did allow us to stay fresh and enthusiastic.

I was sorry to see Terry leave and in Glenn Hoddle we had a manager who had, at first, the respect of the squad for his reputation as a player. So it was sad to see it wane. I can't complain from a personal point of view - if I was fit he picked me - but Glenn was at the centre of a few personality clashes with the characters he had inherited from Terry. He had a very modern approach, nowadays you would call it holistic, but it was not best suited to the players he had.

The squad did not buy into Eileen Drewery's approach. This was not the right group of people to take to a spiritual healer and the famous story about that episode concerns her and Ray Parlour. In healing style, she laid her hands on his head and Ray responded by asking for a short back and sides. Others asked for racing tips. I did try to take it seriously and I made sure I went to see her - I was a bit concerned about the consequences if I did not. We had a pleasant chat about my family although I am not sure it affected my football.

The 1998 World Cup was a hard stretch. We tried to arrange day-trips but it became incredibly monotonous, made worse by the fact that my team-mates at Chelsea who were in the Norway and Denmark teams were telling me that they had their families with them most of the time. We could have done with that. I even had an agreement with Steve Lamacq, the Radio 1 broadcaster, to send me tapes of his Evening Session programme which featured new music. Anything to alleviate the boredom. By the time that we were knocked out of that tournament we were just worn out.

After working with Glenn, I had a good relationship with Kevin Keegan. He kept in touch with me despite the fact that I was injured for Euro 2000 and he invited me to the games. He called me to ask how the injury was healing - just as Venables had done - and made me feel included. I liked his enthusiasm, the difficulty he had was that it felt like a transitional period.

I played in that last match at Wembley at which Keegan resigned and I felt I was still good enough to play for my country. Under Sven Goran Eriksson there were no more call-ups and no explanation as to why. It was good while it lasted but I don't miss those long hotel days of international week.

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