Inside England's camp: Meticulous approach paying off in run to World Cup semifinals
LYON, France -- When one of the media officers for the England women's national soccer team recently had his suitcase checked at Heathrow Airport, the security officials may have been surprised at some of the contents.
Amid the usual travel wears, there were bottles and bottles of HP Sauce, a British condiment that goes with anything and everything.
So when a player and team have been entrenched within the biggest tournament of their careers, any bit of levity, or HP Sauce, helps.
It's part of the larger blueprint put into place by manager Phil Neville and England: Be mentally strong, physically tuned and stay united.
The Lionesses have done just that as they have charged through this Women's World Cup, making their second straight trip to the semifinals, this time against the favored powerhouses from the United States (Tuesday, 9 p.m. local time/3 p.m. ET).
When their Round of 16 match against Cameroon spiraled into controversy, the Lionesses pressed finger against temple, signaling the need to keep their focus. During their group-stage match versus Argentina, the players huddled and collectively paid tribute to their teammates who had lost loved ones. Then, in the heat of Le Havre in their quarterfinal match against Norway, England was physically prepared for the scorching temperatures thanks to the pre-tournament conditioning.
Neville's father once told him, "Never take the easy option and, to succeed in life, you've got to take risks." England has left very little to risk here in France; its preparation, on and off the pitch, has been meticulous.
Fine-tuning body and mind
England adopted a training program called "accumulative fatigue," in which the players trained hard at the start of the tournament and then received more time to recover as the World Cup progressed.
"We've conditioned these players more than they've ever done," Neville said before their opener against Scotland. "We've tried to stretch the boundaries because these players don't know their own capabilities.
"They think they're at the point where they're going to break, then we push them even further. It was a risk, but I think, to win, sometimes you need to take risks. That's why we always do two more reps, three more reps."
After England's win against Norway, reporters stood pitchside at the team's training base on the outskirts of Deauville. Everyone was sweating profusely, and that was just the media. Midfielder Lucy Staniforth, who is playing in her first World Cup, knows full well the benefits of being pushed harder than ever before in training.
"We've done so much individual training to work out where we needed to improve," Staniforth told ESPN.com. "It's been very individualized, which has been refreshing as we've been able to strip ourselves back and work out where our weaknesses are. Every single player in this group has improved in this area over the last 18 months working with Phil.
"I had a funny up-and-down time with a fitness test. I'd score badly, and then really well. And then the test before the camp -- one kilometer, I got a PB [personal best] and that was my 'Oh my God' moment. I nearly cried at that moment, as I know it carried such weight with the physical staff."
The team also spent time with the Royal Marines, as they focused on one of the team's values: bravery. "For the last 16 months, we have told them about risk-taking, gambling in the final third, being brave, taking risks," Neville said. "So, we're now on the biggest stage. You train so that you can deliver on the biggest stage. We had the Marines in, and the training they put themselves through, when they are fighting on the front line, they can deliver. And I hope my players can deliver."
For the record-high temperatures in France, they went through sauna training at St. George's Park before they flew out to the World Cup. "They trained in thermals," Neville said. "They had to keep their jumpers on, they went into saunas for 10 to 15 minutes every day probably building up to 20 to 30. The heat has been intense."
Factoring in the training, selection for each game is in part based on the profiles drawn up for each player by the team's analysts. Those profiles weigh players' strengths and weaknesses and also account for the merits of the opposition. The work the team did pre-tournament is considered, but there is also the work off the field to fine-tune the players' minds.
Mark Sampson, England's previous manager, split the team's training routine almost evenly between time on and off the field, spending a lot of it with a team psychologist. This has continued under Neville. It helped players mentally plan for events like the controversy against Cameroon, which delayed the match while protesting a video-assisted referee (VAR) call, or when they might feel like their tempers are rising.
"We do a lot of work away from the pitch about conserving emotion at certain times in games and how to always think logically," veteran midfielder Jill Scott said. "We'll just sit round and we'll just go through individually, so if you were a Jill who was highly emotional, how would that look.
"And then we actually funnily did it before the Argentina game, and I did say, 'Oh it takes a lot for me to get into my red -- it's called from a psychological point of view.' And then I got put to the test against Argentina because there was probably trying to rattle us a little bit.
"It's actually in those moments in games like Cameroon, that you realize, that without those meetings, we may have had a completely different scenario."
Preparing for the unexpected
Before the tournament, each team was briefed by FIFA on VAR -- once at the draw in December and again upon arrival in France. England used its own official, Sian Massey, who has been an assistant referee here in France, to answer any other questions the players had about the system and its rules.
England defender Lucy Bronze said the team received "extra hints on VAR" from Massey, which helped players disentangle key bits of its nuances from the general overview of the entire lawbook they received from FIFA.
"It's maybe why you've seen our players in a little more control, understanding what's going on," Bronze said.
When Fran Kirby's cross hit an opponent's arm, she knew, under the new rules, it was going to be a penalty. She was able to brief penalty-taker Nikita Parris to get ready for the spot kick, while the official was still determining whether it was a penalty.
Neville also earmarked the media as a potential "red flag" during the tournament. The team briefed players' families on what to expect if they received media inquiries and put the squad through a rigorous day of scenario-based questioning in an auditorium at St. George's Park. One scenario had the players run through a mock postmatch news conference centered around a VAR call that went against them. Another example: What would happen if they had drawn or lost against a less-fancied team and were asked if the manager should be sacked. The Football Association (FA) also encouraged players to be as open as they feel comfortable, pushing personalities rather than toeing a party line.
"We've left no stone unturned," England goalkeeper Mary Earps told ESPN.com. "When you're in the heat of battle and moment and you're tired, it's not the easiest thing to then react to being faced with a new situation and to get 11 people on the same page, but we're prepared for as many eventualities as possible."
Making sure the camp is a happy one
Neville gave each player here a necklace. It had a pendant with "France '19" written on it. It was a reminder of what they are achieving but also team unity.
Central to all of Team England's efforts, from the mental and the physical to managing the mundane, is keeping the team happy. And Neville has made sure this is part of the team's DNA.
"We try to give them a platform and an environment for them to express themselves," Neville said. "You can't play well if you're not happy. The two things I've learned about my girls is that they don't play well if they're not happy and they don't play well if they're not fresh."
HP Sauce is just one of the home touches England has brought to the World Cup. The players' hotel rooms are sprayed with a "home scent" to remind them of more familiar environs; when they walked into their hotel rooms ahead of their final group-stage match against Japan, they found framed photos of their families. There have also been surprise treats. When the team arrived at its base in Le Havre, the players found bars of Dairy Milk chocolate on their beds and managed to persuade the team chef to make them bacon sandwiches for breakfast as a one-off luxury.
"Little things that make you feel like you're at home and bring you together as a team," Kirby said. "That's really working and we need to continue building that relationship off the pitch and it's growing stronger and stronger on it."
Earps' tactic to battle homesickness is to FaceTime her family as much as possible. Staniforth talks of how the atmosphere of the team bus is sometimes punctuated by dog noises from the players FaceTiming their pets. "My dog is up north with the family," Kirby said. "And while I miss him loads, I think he's happy as he's getting fat."
Then, there's an evening routine of watching a certain reality television show after the team's 8 p.m. mealtime.
"We watch the first half of the 9 o'clock [World Cup match] together, and then the 'Love Island' [a British reality TV show] crew go off," Neville said. Due to team meetings and other knockout games kicking off around then, the "Love Island" crew -- which includes Earps, Alex Greenwood and Toni Duggan -- is now catching up on episodes.
The WhatsApp team chat also ensures players are up to date with how they're all faring. Scott has been pleasantly surprised to see how many of the players have bought into her early-evening routine of going for a walk.
Neville has kept himself in tune with players' needs, including being mindful of anniversaries that fell during the tournament, such as Kirby's late mum's birthday. After the match against Argentina, the team huddled together and Neville told Kirby and Carly Telford how proud their late mothers would have been of them.
"I didn't actually know that the girls knew it was my mum's birthday that day," Kirby said. "I remember speaking to Phil before the day, and I was like, 'Look we need to win the game and then we can speak about it and be as emotional as we want,' as I knew I had to get the job done for the team.
"Some of the girls had been messaging my agent asking if it was my mum's birthday and people were supporting each other. It just shows how much we care about this team because I'd do exactly the same for any of them and it shows the togetherness that we have."
And Tuesday, all of these little nuances will come together as England faces the formidable USWNT for a spot in the World Cup final. If England falls short, it will not be for lack of preparation, thoughtfulness or unity.
"Everyone has each other's backs," Kirby said. "Someone looks like they're not OK, and someone will be going to ask them. If someone's having a bad day in training, people are going up to them and checking, 'Come on, let's go, two more games.'
"That's a massive part of being a part of this team."