Bukayo Saka is determined his Euro 2020 penalty shootout miss will make him “stronger”, Jack Grealish likes to give Phil Foden “a dig” about Manchester City’s Champions League final loss, and Luke Shaw loves to “back and forth” with Mason Mount and Declan Rice.
These are some of the off-camera experiences Josh Denzel had during his stint as the host of Lions’ Den, the show broadcast live from inside England’s St George’s Park base throughout the tournament.
Each day it featured a different member of Gareth Southgate’s squad who, as Denzel’s guest, enjoyed a chinwag from a deckchair or beanbag before interacting with fans at a covered area via floor-to-ceiling multi-screens. It allowed a peek at a side of elite footballers not possible in, say, a post-match flash interview.
Denzel, a 2018 Love Island competitor, was an apt host, his blend of cosiness and eschewing of awkward posers allowing the chosen 26 to relax and their “normal-ness” to shine. One episode featured Kalvin Phillips 24 hours after breaking open England’s opening group game against Croatia by creating Raheem Sterling’s winner.
The 25-year-old was voted man-of-the-match and Denzel offers a glimpse of Phillips’s modesty. “I had to ask to bring the award. I texted him: ‘Kal, there’s no being humble right now. You’ve had an amazing start to the tournament. Can you bring along the player of the match trophy?’ And he was like: ‘Are you sure?’ I told him: ‘Yes, people want to see it, man.’
“He was so buzzing with it [yet] he’s not blase about the situation. He’s like them all: they love putting on the shirt, they love playing, and they’re fans as well. The main thing that I got from these boys is they want to win arguably more than the fans because not only are they playing with their brothers, best mates, they’re playing for the country. They represent England, they’re the ones who have to walk in front of 70,000 at Wembley and perform or travel to Rome and perform. It’s incredible to see how much it means and how happy they are in that side.”
Lions’ Den can be viewed as a masterstroke by the Football Association as the players’ palpable enjoyment helped ease any cabin-fever from what was a five-week camp as England reached the final. This, of course, sadly ended in defeat-by-spot-kicks to Italy, Saka missing the decisive one. Yet a measure of the trust between Denzel and Southgate’s squad is that he was soon messaging them.
“I spoke to Bukayo and he said ‘This will make me stronger. We’ll go again.’ These players are some of the toughest mental characters I’ve seen,” says Denzel, who offers a tale about Rice, Mount and Shaw.
The first two have been friends since they were eight years old and in one Lions’ Den episode a riff on Denzel’s own history involved Rice hoping to be chosen by Mount in a skit of the couples on Love Island. Badinage later ensued as Shaw replaced the Chelsea man as Rice’s best friend when Mount had to isolate for being a close contact of Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for coronavirus. Rice joked that he was pleased that Shaw had finally “found his voice” after joining up with the squad with Mount speculating the left-back would be “chewing” about being teased.
“They were obviously giving a bit of stick to Shaw,” says Denzel. “I saw him in the barber shop [in camp] afterwards and he came straight to me and was like: ‘How’d you let them do me like that? I thought I had a bit of back up with you.’ Then, those two walk in and they’re having a bit of a back and forth and I was [thinking], I can’t believe it going to be like this the whole tournament.”
Grealish’s off-field persona proved as maverick as his mazy dribbling-based play. Foden was granted zero sensitivity regarding City’s 1-0 European Cup final reverse in a clip that showed Aston Villa’s captain joking with Jordan Henderson about his triumph in the competition with Liverpool.
“You see the stuff with Phil Foden when Jack’s having a bit of a dig at him about the Champions League final and then he’s running around and he’s playing basketball. He’s just a funny guy. He’s an unbelievable personality to have in the group,” says Denzel.
Of Grealish being constantly scythed down Denzel says: “If he’s fouled and gets a free-kick and puts England in a great position, it’s a win for the team. There’s a bit of him like: ‘Oh, one-nil me.’ He plays like he’s in a battle. He relishes the battles whether it’s for club or country.”
As did all of Southgate’s men. “A lot of these young players play with their handbrake off,” says Denzel. “Jadon Sancho: I spoke to him about growing up playing cage football. He plays like he’s still in the cage. He wants to beat people, take people on.”
Like Saka, Sancho and Marcus Rashford also missed in the shootout and all subsequently suffered sickening racist abuse. “These tweets that Marcus and Sancho and Bukayo are getting, it’s affecting Harry Kane, it’s affecting Harry Maguire, it’s affecting Kalvin Phillips,” Denzel says. “You attack one, you get a response from everyone.
“These boys, it does affect them. No matter how much of a brave face you’re putting on, someone attacking you for the colour of your skin when you’ve gone out and played seven amazing games for your country and taken them to the first final in 55 years: you’d feel you’re under-appreciated.
“From inside the camp – the bond, and the brotherhood, you can feel it. You see people in groups one day having a laugh as they walk back from training, the next day there’s new groups, new pockets.
“There’s one unit – that’s one of the reasons why we’ve done so well in this tournament. It’s also why there’s been such a unified response to these disgusting racist tweets. It’s because when you’re family you can’t attack one without attacking everyone.”
England have to wait a little over a year for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and the chance to take the final step and add to the 1966 victory. “I messaged a few of the boys after the final, when the dust settled,” Denzel says. “They’re desperate to go again, to win. For their country, families, friends, the fans. And when I was speaking to them [it was clear]: they’ll come again stronger.”