It is a sign of just how important representing England is to the squad at this World Cup, and how close they have become, that several have had tattoos of their legacy numbers.
John Stones has had the number 1,202 inked on the back of his right arm, while James Maddison has 1,245 on his right bicep. The legacy number has become a mark of honour. It relates to each player’s position in the 150-year history of the England team. Everyone has his own number, for the order in which they were called up for international duty.
The concept was dreamt up by England’s senior communications manager, Andy Walker, who works with the equally excellent head of communications, Greg Demetriou, and has been embraced by Gareth Southgate.
The tattoos are an indicator of what it means to be part of the England squad which, as Jack Grealish has described, is like playing “with a bunch of best mates”. Although that seems confected, it is genuine.
Southgate’s positive, inclusive approach is the key. So much is rightly made of the manager’s emotional intelligence, and that is never more evident than in the positive environment he has created around England tournament camps.
The most public sign of that here has been the developing “bromance” between Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham. In the past with England, before Southgate, their 13-year age gap, and the fact they play for different clubs, would have been barriers. Now Bellingham, 19, regards Henderson as a big brother and a role model and is happy to say so.
For example, when Henderson walked through the mixed zone, where journalists can talk to players, after England’s win against Senegal on Sunday he was accompanied by Bellingham – who had set up his goal in the game. As Henderson waxed lyrical about how good his fellow midfielder was, Bellingham stood grinning with his fingers in his ears.
The relationship began with the numbers. Before the European Championship last year each player was presented with a red velvet cap embroidered with their number.
Henderson, No 1,170, was chosen to hand Bellingham is cap, No 1,258. The teenager was so touched that he asked if he could present the England vice-captain with his. The friendship developed from there.
But it is typical of what happens in this squad, who were close but have become even closer as they have progressed in the tournament. This is partly because many have come through the England age groups together or are best friends, like Declan Rice and Mason Mount, and partly because of the Covid restrictions.
At the Euros England had to operate in a bubble at St George’s Park, so creating ways to bond became even more vital, from barbecues, to Ed Sheeran concerts, to card games.
Here there is a self-imposed bubble for everyone at the team hotel: the Souq Al-Wakra, south of Doha. It has brought support staff from the Football Association closer, and they have become one big extended family, with Southgate the paternal head.
The hotel lay-out helps. Games of Werewolf – a murder strategy game involving role playing – can be heard being played loudly around the hotel pool after World Cup games have been watched on TV. They are usually chaired by Conor Coady, who helped introduce the game having played it when he was at Wolverhampton Wanderers (appropriately).
“At first it was a small group and now there’s probably a group of 12 or 13 of them involved,” said Kalvin Phillips. “You can hear them cheering by the pool.” The last game involved 20 players.
There are also daily games of Around the World, the classic basketball game with players making shots from different points, with an outdoor court installed at the hotel.
The only complaint? The wifi is not the greatest.
The players have also taken a shine to a cat, a white and tabby stray they call Dave, which Kyle Walker has promised to adopt and take back to the UK, with a local animal charity having said it will help. But there was concern on Tuesday when Dave got into a fight. “Dave is fine. He had a little scrap with another cat the other night. I think they are fighting over territory and the food,” Walker said.
The family feel is crucial. Again Southgate has made sure there are many home-from-home touches, such as framed family photographs in the players’ rooms and personalised notes.
The Premier League should take some credit for developing more rounded graduates from their academies. When David Beckham visited the England camp this week to collect his legacy number (1,078), with a shirt printed with it on the collar, Bukayo Saka approached him while he was talking to Southgate and said: “Sorry to interrupt,” as he asked to be photographed with the former captain.
There is no doubt that England were riven by cliques in the past. Some former internationals have denied this but former staff, especially those who worked with Fabio Capello, were shocked how players appeared to stay within their clubs: a Manchester United table, a Chelsea table, a Liverpool table.
It was claimed that this was because there was such fierce competition between them, but the fact that Manchester City and Liverpool have had a great rivalry in recent years and yet their players get on – except for one incident when Raheem Sterling clashed with Joe Gomez in 2019 – explodes that myth.
Back then it looked as if playing for their club was far more important than playing for their country. That no longer seems to be the case, which may be Southgate’s greatest legacy.