Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett analyses isolation challenges and new protocols facing England players, staff and journalists as well as Mason Greenwood and Conor Coady’s impressive first impressions.
There has never been an England away game anything like this one. For supporters, journalists – or for the players.
There won’t be any supporters here, there will be only a fraction of the usual number of journalists, and England’s squad of 24 players will have only a travelling support staff of 25 – many fewer than usual.
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Yes, there are some similarities with when England played Croatia in the Nations League behind closed doors in Rijeka two years ago. But that was fan-free because of a UEFA punishment, not because of coronavirus. And, as it was, around 100 England fans still managed to get a birds-eye view of half the pitch by standing on a hill behind the stadium, and the players could hear their songs.
This time, there will be no England fans in Reykjavik.
Isolation in Iceland
From the media point of view, cameraman Scott Drummond and I have been in self-isolation inside a hotel room in the Icelandic capital for four days, and it’s starting to take its toll. Even though the hotel we are staying in said it had a restaurant and a gym, both have closed as a result of Government rules.
So there’s no room service. Just a list of local restaurants and cafes we can call, to try to organise food to be delivered. On Saturday night, they were all too busy to do so. And the Icelandic equivalent of Deliveroo wouldn’t work for us, because the online system wouldn’t accept a UK credit card.
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After two days eating fruit, crisps, nuts and some out-of-date sushi we’d bought from a local shop on arrival, it took us over four hours before we managed to persuade a local kebab shop to bring us over a pizza. At half past midnight.
Most Icelandic people we have come across are scared of us – we obviously look “foreign” and they back away. When we went for our daily 10 minute walk on Sunday, and asked a waitress serving people on the street outside if she could please deliver us a meal later, she snatched the menus off us, said they weren’t allowed to and scurried off inside.
It’s a very strange experience compared with the usual England trips where – when we have done our work for the day – we can sit with journalists from other media organisations and chew the fat over a beer and a meal.
The players are also in a very different environment compared with usual England training camps. They all had to be tested for coronavirus by the FA before they joined up at St George’s Park – up until now, since football’s return, that always happened in secure environments inside their own Premier League training ground. With England, this meant some were tested at home, or where they were staying on holiday.
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Once at SGP, the players are subject to some of the most stringent rules of any of the European teams. While they’re different to anything they’ve experienced with England before, they’re very similar to the “new normal” within their clubs: masks are to be worn all the time when indoors; there is only a limited time for the players altogether in training; team meetings with Gareth Southgate and his staff are also shorter, and often in smaller groups; there’s no hand-shaking, only elbow bumps.
And, of course, the players are doing all their interviews virtually.
Greenwood and Coady impress
That’s been a real shame for those players who have been called up by England for the first time. They usually walk into a crowded Jimmy Armfield Lecture Theatre at SGP, with a row of cameras in there, dozens of journalists, all wanting to ask them questions about how special it is to be there. There’s an expectant buzz.
This time, the questions were similar, of course, but the sense of occasion, the circus atmosphere, was sadly lacking.
Both Mason Greenwood and Conor Coady were speaking on their first call-ups to England’s senior squad. Both have played for five of England’s junior teams, both said it was a dream come true to be there, both said their families were quite emotional when they heard the news.
But their demeanours in their respective news conferences were very different.
Coady, at 27, was beaming from ear to ear as he excitedly told of how he’d originally missed Southgate’s call because he was out at a local pond with his son, and how his wife had urged him to quickly call back. He talked animatedly about how his parents had been emotional when he called them with the news, how he’s first and foremost an England fan, always watched the games on TV, and never gave up hope that he would get the chance one day to be a part of it.
Greenwood, at 18, was very controlled in his manner, and very careful in his approach to answers. He was clearly delighted by the call-up, but you sensed he sees this as the next stage for him in his progression towards superstardom. I asked him whether he felt he could compete with the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish for a starting spot. “I feel ready to compete with anyone,” came the assured reply.
He saw the tricky questions coming a mile off – he politely declined to answer my question about his team-mate and captain, Harry Maguire, and similarly was complimentary, but non-committal about Manchester United’s imminent signing of Donny van de Beek – “great player, but it’s not up to me to talk about him”.
When a newspaper journalist asked him whether he still lived at home, and whether he’d got out of a load of family chores by being called up he cut his questioner dead with: “I’m not going to answer that”.
Greenwood was never rude, he was always thoughtful in his answers, and for a teenager, he showed an incredible maturity and self-confidence – two qualities that have seen him take Manchester United – and the Premier League as a whole – by storm.
Both men were equally impressive in their first news conferences as international players, but for very different reasons. That hints at both the age difference between the two, of course, but also their different experiences in life and football.
Coady was shipped out on loan to Sheffield United, and ultimately sold by his beloved Liverpool to Huddersfield. He saw his dreams of playing at the top level slipping away at the age of 21, and he’s fought tooth and nail to get to where he is now.
Greenwood hasn’t reached that milestone age yet, but he has clearly been schooled in the ways of Manchester United, and was no doubt warned by his club, and by the FA, what the dangerous questions would be before he walked in to speak to us.
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