Belfast Telegraph

How England's 'good holiday' vibe can lead to World Cup success

By Simon Peach

Birthday boy Ashley Young is hoping to end the holiday of a lifetime with a World Cup winner's medal.

England have not only talked the talk in Russia but walked the walk, leaving Gareth Southgate's men preparing to face Croatia tomorrow night for a place in Sunday's finale.

The Three Lions' journey to their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years has captivated a nation and is born of the group's unique bond.

Togetherness has been a buzzword throughout the tournament, where remote Repino - a small tourist town 29 miles north-west of St Petersburg - has become the unlikely base for England's quiet revolution.

"I think not just the players but the staff behind the scenes, making the hotel feel like you are at home - pictures of family in rooms, things to do in the hotel," said Young, who missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout defeat to Italy at Euro 2012.

"If you said to any player that we were going to be together for seven weeks, there was a lot of talk of being bored, but it's not like that at all. It's felt like a good holiday we've been on, and we're enjoying every moment of it. No boredom at all.

"Everyone gets on well and if you've got that off the pitch you can take that onto the pitch. Fans, staff, players, everyone can see how well we click."

There is a spirit among a squad low in terms of international experience but brimming with confidence and potential.

Young is the oldest member of Southgate's group and turned 33 yesterday, but the celebrations are on hold - just as they were after the 2-0 quarter-final win against Sweden.

"We haven't won anything yet so there's no point in celebrating," the attack-minded left-back said. "It was nice to get the victory but I think the celebrations were muted because there's still big games.

"There's still a lot to play for. I've said all along that the team spirit we have has been fantastic and I think you see that in the way we celebrate after a game.

"We get ourselves back to the hotel, recover, prepare the right way and go for the next game."

Young believes England have a "great chance" to go on and win the World Cup this week, but there is little chance of Southgate's men taking semi-final opponents Croatia lightly.

"As a kid you always dream of playing in a World Cup and you dream of winning the World Cup," the Manchester United man said. "But we are not going to get too far ahead of ourselves and get carried away.

"The boys' feet are on the ground and everyone is pulling in the same way. We have just got to prepare the same way as we have for our other games. It's another game coming up and that's how we have to see it.

"Croatia are a very good team. They are not in the semi-final for no reason. We've got to be prepared for them.

"They have the likes of Luka Modric - he's a fantastic player - but they have other players around the squad that are going to be difficult opponents.

"But we can't concentrate on them. We've got to concentrate on ourselves and that is what we will be doing."

Young brushed aside talk of England having more support tomorrow night, but spoke openly about the impact that being taken to extra-time and penalties in both knockout games, against Denmark and Russia, could have on Croatia.

"I think, especially physically, it is demanding on the body to go 120 minutes in a game and then you've got to fly back as well to base," he said.

"We felt that and now they have done it twice so it could play a major advantage.

"But we know it is going to be a tough game and we've got to be mentally and physically prepared for what they bring and will throw at us."

Young's team-mate John Stones, meanwhile, says a proven strength in adversity has united the England squad.

Celebrity endorsements and millionaire wages mask the reality that Stones and the majority of his team-mates had to overcome significant battles to reach the professional game.

In the case of Stones it meant being held back and told to prove himself in lower-age teams before he was finally handed his first professional contract with Barnsley in 2011.

Stones conceded: "I've been through some tough patches when I was younger - when I was 14 or 15 I had to play with the age below and it took its toll. I had to stick at it but I never gave up and stopped believing in myself.

"People don't realise - they might see that everything is going in one direction but when you're younger there's a lot of things that happen and a lot of adversity to overcome."

Stones believes the remarkable bond which has been forged within Southgate's squad - with the encouragement of the manager - has also proved crucial in defying pre-tournament expectations to reach the last-four.

"We've worked hard on getting to know each other off the pitch and creating that togetherness and understanding with each other," added Stones.

"He (Southgate) has been a big part of that and wanting us to spend an extra 10 minutes getting to know each other and creating a bond that you don't normally get with everyone spending so much time at their club - that's been a massive factor.

"I've been there going to pubs to watch England and it's surreal to see everyone do that. We're putting the smile back on faces and making them feel proud about England again."

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