Saint Petersburg (AFP) – England trained for the first time in Russia on Wednesday, with midfielder Eric Dier praising coach Gareth Southgate’s ability to shield his players from the hothouse World Cup atmosphere.
A day after touching down in Saint Petersburg, England held an open training session in nearby Zelenogorsk watched by hundreds of excited young fans.
Harry Kane was presented with a trophy by women in traditional local dress while an announcer introduced players one by one to the squealing Russian children.
It made for a relaxed and cheerful atmosphere, contrasting with the sometimes fraught build-up to the tournament, particularly recent controversy involving Raheem Sterling.
Sterling was criticised for having a tattoo of a gun inked on his leg but Southgate responded by starting the midfielder in a friendly win over Nigeria.
The manager’s loyalty amid the sometimes feverish atmosphere generated by England’s media and public expectations has not gone unnoticed.
“I think just the way he has carried himself, I think that rubs off on the players,” Dier said.
“It’s his calmness, the way he handles situations within the group and difficult situations that always occur before tournaments.
“I think the squad really appreciate that and we have massive respect for the way he does it.”
Southgate has indicated Dier will be fighting with Jordan Henderson for a spot in central midfield when England open up against Tunisia in Group G on Monday.
Neither player, however, showed any sign of tension.
– Relaxed camp –
“I get on well with Eric,” Henderson said. “He’s a great lad, he’s a fantastic player. It’s not just me and him fighting for places, it’s the whole team.”
“I feel relaxed,” Dier added. “Hopefully I get the chance to play in this World Cup, that would be amazing, but it’s the manager’s decision.”
Rather than fretting, England have been entertaining themselves playing table tennis, with Henderson claiming he is the currently the man to beat.
“Henderson, table tennis champion, that sounds good,” he said. “Me and Trent (Alexander-Arnold) have had a few games. Raheem likes it, Eric likes it as well, so there’s a few of us. It’s big competition in there.”
Belgium have been circled as England’s fiercest rivals in the group stage but Tunisia only succumbed to a late goal in a friendly against Spain on Saturday, after holding Portugal to a 2-2 draw a fortnight ago.
“We know they’ll be a good team,” Henderson said. “If you look at the game they just played against Spain, and Portugal as well, they’ve played well. It’ll be a tough game but one that we’ve got to be ready for.”
A notable absentee from England training on Wednesday was Marcus Rashford, with the Manchester United striker nursing a knock to his knee.
“He’s not too bad I don’t think,” Henderson said. “We’ve still got five days before the first game so it’s just a little bit of a precaution for him to make sure he’s OK.”
Dier also emerged with heavy strapping around his left thigh but dismissed any concerns about his fitness.
“It’s superstition more than anything,” Dier said. “I’ve had a problem in my leg and it’s cleared up now but I was wearing the strapping before and I just haven’t stopped wearing it yet.”