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World Cup 2018: Gareth Southgate has a squad of England players, not Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal stars

Players of the then Big Four never sat together during the mid-noughties 

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Monday 18 June 2018 08:56 BST
Tunisia England World Cup preview

One of the more understated pleasures of England’s build-up to this summer’s World Cup campaign has been watching the burgeoning bromance that appears to be developing between Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli. Played out largely on social media, the pair seem to have struck up an instinctive friendship based on the universal language of banter.

Here, you can see Sterling mocking Alli’s new clothes endorsement. Here, you can see Alli getting his own back by posting a video of Sterling playing arcade basketball, and getting hit in the face by a rebound. But there’s a genuine affection there, too: it’s understood that when England arrived at St George’s Park for their final training camp before flying out to Russia, Sterling complained to an FA official that he had not been given the room next to Alli, as has been customary. A swift relocation was arranged.

Raheem and Dele: best of friends off the pitch, best of enemies on it. For most of an average year, the pair are fierce rivals: for points, for trophies, perhaps even for reputation and prestige. They’re centurions in the Guardiola and Pochettino armies, endlessly compared, endlessly juxtaposed. Such are the giddily vertiginous stakes of elite club football these days that a certain antipathy between duelling foes seems almost inevitable. Instead, the very opposite seems to have occurred. Far from driving them apart, the searing exposure and relentless judgment of their profession may actually have wedged them closer together.

Multiply the Raheem-Dele axis by a few dozen, a few hundred, and you begin to understand why this England squad is so different from its predecessors. “There’s a lot mentioned about the United, Liverpool, Arsenal thing,” England midfielder Nicky Butt said while on international duty under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2003. “It’s true. When we go away with England, we all have our cliques. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t. I want to spend my time with friends, and they just happen to be the United lads.”

More recently, the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, have confirmed what anyone paying even remote attention would surely have known at the time: that England’s ‘Golden Generation’ squad was riven by partiality, by faction, by narrow tribal loyalty. The hope is that this current generation - younger than the 2004 or 2006 sides, but in a way so much more mature - have finally laid England’s culture of club cliques to rest.

Around the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, English club football was the best in the world, with teams that would define an era, and rivalries to match. Liverpool hated Manchester United, United hated Arsenal, Arsenal hated Chelsea, Chelsea hated Liverpool and so on. And hard as their players tried to lay down arms when on England duty, fraternising with the enemy was a step too far.

“Myself and John [Terry] were massively behind Chelsea,” Lampard says. “Same with Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Same with Rio and the Manchester United players. We’d gone against each other all season. Human nature means you stay slightly in groups. Probably we could have handled that better. We could have crossed that divide slightly. But I’m sure Gareth is working on that.”

On the other hand Eriksson, a manager whose true legacy with England remains hotly debated, claims not to have seen anything out of the ordinary. “I never noticed that,” he told The Independent earlier this month. “If you see two players coming from the dressing room, or from lunch, it’s normally two Liverpool players, or two Chelsea players, because they know each other. But I don’t believe that they couldn’t play together.”

There is an element of truth to this, of course. You don’t need to be best mates with somebody to pass the ball to them, you don’t even need to like them very much. A divided team, built on fragile detentes rather than genuine alliances, can certainly still function. But for a generation with such talent, you might well argue that function is just about all that England managed to do. That spark of synergy, the scintilla of synchronicity, the sense of shared destiny that can galvanise limited teams into something greater than its individual parts - never materialised.

Fringe players remember an environment sullenly hostile to newcomers. Dean Ashton, the former West Ham striker whose brief international career was cut short by injury, once recalled that during his first England call-up, a handful of players - Lampard, Joe Cole, Ashley Cole and David Beckham among them - did not speak to him at all. Even when Eriksson tried to force a degree of integration by making the squad eat at one big table, that one table would simply separate out into the same club cliques - the United end, the Liverpool end, the Chelsea section - that existed before.

It all contributed to an atmosphere of unease, edginess, perhaps even mutual distrust. What you certainly would not call it, by any stretch of the imagination, is fun. “When I speak to other internationals,” Gerrard said last year, “they can’t wait to go away [on international duty]. You didn’t really get that feeling going away with England.”

So what’s changed? Lower expectations are clearly one factor. The Golden Generation toiled under its tag, laboured under the expectation that they would be the ones to finally end England’s major tournament drought. This current side have much less pressure on them. The dampening of club rivalries, too, has had an effect. There is no fixture in English football today that shimmers with the white heat of, say, Manchester United v Arsenal in the early 2000s, or Chelsea v Liverpool a few years later.

England's golden generation was full of cliques (AFP/Getty Images)

Allied to which, the makeup of England squads has subtly shifted over the last decade. The current squad is drawn from 11 different Premier League clubs; not since Euro 2000 have England gone into a major tournament with a squad this mixed. There are just eight players from the old Big Four clubs - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, United - the fewest since Euro 96. In 2006 and 2012, there were 14. That’s a lot of bad blood, brooding posses, unfinished business. Little wonder England teams of the era occasionally played like they owed each other money.

But the major factor - and the one Southgate himself pinpointed when I asked him about the issue last month - was the journey this group have been on together. Naturally, the England coach had seen the comments of Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard and was aware of the dangers. But neither did not want to force grown adults to hang out with each other as if they were toddlers being set up on play-dates. Instead, to his immense satisfaction, the process seemed to happen almost naturally.

There are shared interests and worldviews in there: more than two-thirds of the squad are aged between 24 and 28. But most importantly, they have done this before. Three years ago, Jack Butland, John Stones, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were in the under-21 squad that travelled to the Czech Republic. Four years earlier, it was Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson, Danny Welbeck, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose in Denmark. The previous year, Sterling and Jordan Pickford went to the under-17 World Cup in Mexico.

In the same way that going on holiday together is often the ultimate test of a friendship, going to a major tournament is often where the bonds of footballing loyalty are most strongly forged. This is a group that have toured together, travelled and eaten together, spent interminable hours in airport departure lounges or squinting at foreign menus together. More recently, they have won together. And somehow, connections that have been made that even the furnace of Premier League club rivalries cannot melt.

“I’m a one-man clique,” Welbeck, the squad’s only Arsenal player, joked at the England open media day. “I know everything about everyone. I talk to the Tottenham boys, the Tottenham boys talk to me, and throughout the whole squad everyone just has a laugh and a joke.”

Occasionally, Southgate wonders whether this squad even get on a little too well. Whether the balance between friendship and sporting partnership has been tipped too far in favour of the former, whether these players still have the capacity to be brutally frank with each other on the pitch, to bollock each other in training, to drive up standards together. But given what has gone before, it is a happy dilemma to have. The scars of the past have healed over. Now all England have to ensure is that they do not create new ones.

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