England camp's darts matches, fun and relaxation fuels World Cup bid

They have a basketball court at England's World Cup hotel in Repino, just up the coast from Saint Petersburg. They also have a driving simulator, a group who play each other at Fortnite and, when the players have recovery days in the pool, Gareth Southgate's squad have races on inflatable unicorns.

"It's felt like a good holiday that we've all been on," Ashley Young told ESPN FC at a news conference on Monday, when asked why the mood has been so different around England in Russia. "There has been no boredom at all.

"If you'd have said we'd be away for seven weeks and not be bored -- well, it has not felt [boring]."

How times change. In 2010, when Fabio Capello's squad were based at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in South Africa, the players muttered about it being a "five-star prison," so isolated was the purpose-built hotel in Rustenburg, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Jermain Defoe would even reveal later: "One night I was bored, so me and Wayne Rooney sat in his room and watched his whole wedding on DVD."

This time, it has been altogether different, and a key reason why Southgate's team are still in Russia, preparing for a World Cup semifinal against Croatia on Wednesday.

Even at the media centre, close to England's hotel -- the Country Club ForRestMix -- the mood is so much lighter than at previous tournaments. There is a 10-pin bowling alley -- Young played by himself while waiting for Eric Dier to complete his own media duties -- and the dart board has become part of the prematch ritual, with players taking on journalists before the news conferences begin.

During Euro 2016, when England were based in Chantilly, north of Paris, the tension between players and media was such that goalkeeper Joe Hart refused to even disclose who was impressing at darts in the squad's private games room.

There are no Joe Harts in Repino, however. The "them and us" atmosphere that tends to shroud every major tournament with England has gone, with Southgate's determination for grown-ups to be grown-ups now having a positive effect on all those within the England bubble.

The Football Association media department, in tandem with Southgate, has worked hard to eradicate the battle lines, with the players now more relaxed when faced with cameras and tape recorders and journalists happy to volunteer for the darts ritual against one of Southgate's team.

But there is more to England's progress than happier relations with the media. Finding the right camp, and the right atmosphere, has also been crucial because it is a key factor that England usually get horribly wrong.

South Africa 2010 was a disaster because Capello's players were bored to distraction.

Prior to that, Sven-Goran Eriksson's players were forced to cope with the "WAG" circus in Baden-Baden in 2006, with players and their families staying so close to each other in the German spa town that one of England's players complained of his wife asking him when he could help with the childcare.

Brazil 2014 was another mess, with the stunning training camp setting in the foothills of Sugar Loaf Mountain diminished by players having to spend at least an hour on the bus every day between hotel and training ground.

In Repino, though, the players have had every element taken care of to make them more comfortable and less prone to the boredom and restlessness that has affected England squads for years.

"It's not just the players and squad [who make the atmosphere]," Young said.

"It's also the staff behind the scenes, making the hotel feel like home, with pictures of family in the room and things for us to do.

"There is team spirit and togetherness -- everyone can see how everyone has come together."

Southgate, having played at four major tournaments with England, has admitted that his own experience has helped finesse the approach in Russia.

But he also insists that players cannot complain about where they are and how long they are away.

"My old physio at Aston Villa said: 'Only boring people get bored,'" Southgate said. "But I think we have an environment where the players have this energy between them, so there is always something going on within the group. They are chatting, playing games, socialising and online.

"I think what has been referred to in the past has been cultural, but we have been able to do different things with them that they have enjoyed.

"But it's about not the hotel you stay in -- frankly, in my life with England, there were a couple of more difficult countries early on where the hotels weren't brilliant, but generally, we're in the best hotel in the city that we're in."

English players, Southgate accepts, are not attuned to the more controlled environment that Capello imposed on his players in South Africa, however.

"I didn't work with Fabio, so I don't know how that was, but I know Italian players are away for preseason for weeks. That's what they're used to," Southgate said.

"Our guys are wired differently. If we'd been together for too long and there weren't enough things to stimulate the players, boredom could have been an issue.

"But there are moments as an athlete where your world is train, recover, game. It's not just all about entertainment.

"We do take it seriously, the environment we create, but the togetherness of the group is fundamental to that.

"If they can go outside the hotel, great. We are aware of security issues, so there is a balance, but we give them time with their families when they are away as well.

"I had a night in the hotel with the Dutch in Brazil and I was surprised how relaxed they were, under Louis van Gaal, actually. That seemed a good environment for me at a tournament."

Netherlands, under van Gaal, also made it to the semifinals at the World Cup four years ago, but their dream ended with a penalty shootout defeat against Argentina.

England may have adopted the Dutch blueprint for a happy camp, but they now want to take it further on the pitch by winning their semifinal against Croatia.