a wink & a roar.

Photography: OLIVIA ROSE
Interview & Words: TOM EVEREST

Spending a day with the England national team is cloaked in a lot less secrecy and security than you’d imagine. It is partly down to the unique way in which analog photographer Olivia Rose works, and how she manages to humanise everyday icons and draw raw, untouched emotion from even the most recognisable faces in UK contemporary culture. “Everyone is a silly old human at the end of the day, no matter how skilful or talented they are on the pitch, they are still a person with a story – with laughter and with sadness.” But it’s also a testament to how the latest crop of English talent operates. The players bundle into St George’s Park with a collective confidence and camaraderie more closely associated with a group of mates than a country’s elite football talent. Regional accents intersperse, factions appear momentarily throughout the day but they are linked through mutual tastes in trainers rather than domestic club allegiances that supposedly strangled England camps of the past.

As you would expect, captain Harry Kane leads the way by finding comfort in front of the camera and the crew. He begins by meticulously explaining why he likes what he’s wearing as he’s a ‘tracksuit guy’ before outlining the specific way in which he slicks back his hair. He speaks with care, consideration and a level of detail to ensure that, along with the help of Olivia, the photos look authentic and everyone feels at home in the rigid corporate room of St George’s Park which has just been overtaken by the sounds of J-Hus and Dave. Elsewhere, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and his mate down the M62, Trent Alexander-Arnold, taunt Chelsea’s Mason Mount through his first solo shot of the day. “Ooo, Mason. Ooo Mason’s a model.’ Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho beckons over The Blue’s Tammy Abraham to join him in front of the camera. ‘Come on, man. It’s a London thing. Get in here.’

Although St George’s Park is over seven years old, and stationed somewhere in the Bermuda triangle of middle England, it finally has an identity. The feeling of positivity, collective endeavour and pride is more of a unifying force than it has ever been. Especially between the players at national team level. That’s because the individual quirks, the private jokes and the natural reactions to the camera, lights and attention – both on and off the pitch –is what unites their personalities and makes them incredibly likable. Everything is natural. It is a feeling epitomised by the first time Marcus Rashford – the man who has played more games for the national side in a single year than anyone since 1966 – sees the new Nike England jersey.

“I like the badge move,” he beams. “It reminds me of the kits when I was a kid.” The exuberant reaction, the innocence of it, the playground spirit which surrounds him, perfectly illustrates how this new generation of England players – undeterred by years of scandal, failure and sensationalism – remain true to themselves.

It is this sense of unity, calmness and joy that appeals to the masses. The same insatiable feeling that captivated the country two years ago at the World Cup. The squad seems to represent its generation – a group of millennials who face their difficulties head on, without complaint, who are disciplined, hardworking and resilient. In doing so, they are proving far more relatable than footballers of recent generations. They may still be multimillionaires – but they have the same hobbies as the rest of us, they enjoy the same video games, they play the same pranks and, like everyone, they have their favourite English traditions.

For instance, Harry Kane loves a biscuit. “A custard cream and a cup of tea, that’s my go to.” Tammy Abraham is all about breakfast. “I like my baked beans, a little bit of bacon there as well, scrambled eggs, toast and all sorts. There’s no doubt an English breakfast up there.” We also considered it imperative, or at least comforting, for you to know that Mason Mount eats a roast dinner ahead of important fixtures too. “I had one yesterday before I joined up (with the England national team). I think it’s a massive part of being part of a family, you always have it on Sundays, you get together and enjoy being together and enjoy a roast dinner. Yesterday I had two Yorkshire puddings, stuffing, no sprouts – because I don’t like them – potatoes, swede and chicken. It always has to be roast chicken.”

So, they drink tea, rate a roast and rinse each other for their trainer choices. That’s why we, collectively, have an affinity to this squad that supersedes all others. It has been a while – a lifetime – since England have looked to be moving towards a major tournament like this. It is not simply that next year’s European Championships is the first to take place across the continent with 12 different cities hosting games and Wembley playing home to all England group games as well as the two semi-finals and the final on June 12th. It is also the first time in 20 years that the levels of expectancy around the team are seen as a motivating factor and not a burden. For a whole generation, it is their first experience of a country fully united behind a squad. And that’s all down to the individuals who come together to form this new collective vision.

The new England generation enjoy their job, relish the responsibility and aim to squeeze every ounce out of it. They represent their country with a level of pride and joy that you, me, and anyone who has had even a single outing down Hackney Marshes, would do. Again, how do we know that? Well, because we asked them that too.

“National pride comes from me wearing this badge,” says the skipper Harry Kane, as a delicate side smile appears across his face as if he is trying to paint over a sense of professionalism despite his genuine enthusiasm. “It represents my country; it represents my friends, my family – the fans. Everytime I walk out on the pitch, it’s my way of giving back to the nation. I’m an extremely passionate man and everytime I go out there I feel like I owe the fans, the country, my everything.”

“It’s still surreal,” adds Tammy Abraham. “Growing up wearing the England kit playing in the local park, to actually wearing it on a football pitch at the highest level, for your country, has always been the biggest dream for me.”

It’s clear that the weight of expectation doesn’t sit too heavy on Harry’s, Tammy’s nor anyone else’s shoulders. It’s a challenge that collectively they absorb; it’s something they thrive on. Partly down to the fact that they’ve adapted to the modern world and made it their own. For instance, today’s media landscape is such that Raheem Sterling has been able to speak for himself, owning the narrative and releasing his own statements via social media. This unfiltered access to the players has spiked, with players feeling comfortable enough within themselves to speak for themselves. In recent times, Danny Rose has spoken honestly, openly about his struggles with mental health, Tyrone Mings has become an important and inspiring voice in society and Marcus Rashford has launched a campaign to combat homelessness. The press, the tabloid media, haven’t entirely changed, but they’ve at least had to reconsider. Because the power to activate positive change is now in the hands of the players.

Their Instagram accounts alone dwarf the circulation of national papers. So, they now have the platform to inform, inspire and set a new example. “I look at the three lions and I think history, passion, hunger, determination, honour, success,” empowers Joe Gomez. “I think it’s important we try to represent the three lions and the country at every opportunity we get. It’s an ongoing reputation we have to try and upkeep.”

The level of emotional attachment, something that is often not fully appreciated from the outside-looking-in, underlines everything the players say throughout the day. “The idea of playing for England is something that as a kid you dream of but you are never quite sure if you’ll make the cut, there’s a huge amount of players in England and a lot of talent so to actually do it is an unbelievable feeling,” preaches Marcus Rashford. “England, and my home in Manchester, is everything.

Home is where the heart is and I think once you understand that no matter where you go, if you know where home is, then that’s a strength in your life. When you play for England you think of these places, your home, and how they all come together to make this country special.”

However, this isn’t a story of hope rather than expectation. Every player you speak to, alongside the majority of fans, players and pundits nationwide, share a confident belief that this may just be the generation to surpass all others on the pitch too.

“We will definitely try our best because we have a good chance,” explains Jadon Sancho with a level of nonchalance that has made his instant impact in the Bundesliga appear effortless. “I mean, with the young talent that’s coming through, and with the experienced players showing us young ones how it’s done, I’m pretty sure we will get far.” Will we win? “Yes, we will.” “That’s the goal,” adds Mason Mount. “I think we can do it. If you look at the talent in the squad and the young players coming through, we all want to do it and we’re all fighting and ready to meet the challenge and overcome it. I was 16 the first time I played for England, and every time you put that shirt on you feel immensely proud and you think you can achieve anything.”

It’s a clique and a collective mentality that mirrors the best of English society; a team united through a variety of traditions, backgrounds, races, cultures and creeds. An inclusiveness that continues to unite people of all ages. As a result, there seems to be an incredible level of national goodwill towards the squad. Not in the same way we sometimes send our sportspeople out to international tournaments with an over-inflated sense of patriotism but rather as standard bearers; representatives; ambassadors for a better England. A society we all want to be part of.

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