DANIEL STURRIDGE believes Euro 2016’s youngest squad have the potential to return from France as champions, especially if England can harness the “special” atmosphere unlike anything the striker has experienced.
Nine months after sealing qualification and three weeks since preparations got under way, Saturday’s Group B opener against Russia is now tantalisingly close for Roy Hodgson’s men.
Relaxed and excited were the buzzwords upon arriving at their Chantilly training base on Monday afternoon, with England’s light-hearted but competitive training session the following day highlighting that vibe.
Outfield players and goalkeepers trained together during an open session watched by hundreds of local children at the Stade des Bourgognes, after which Sturridge says the group atmosphere is not only better than the World Cup two years ago but any club for which he has played.
“The feeling is great,” the Liverpool striker said pitchside at England’s training ground. “It is probably a little bit more relaxed than before.
“The group’s younger and everyone is just ready to go. We’ve always had a good camaraderie but this time seems different to me.
“Coming in and seeing how everyone is and how thing are day-to-day, just feels different to how it was before.
“Everyone gets on very well. There’s no animosity or any bad vibes at all.
“Everyone is so happy and, as I said, it’s the best I’ve experienced, even talking about playing at clubs as well.
“It’s a strange feeling to be part of something so special so far.”
The self-assured but oft-injured striker certainly emitted alacrity when it came to his fitness, focusing on the period of sustained fitness he enjoyed before a calf strain jeopardised his place in the 23.
Sturridge feels “very fit” now and is thriving off the competition England’s attack-heavy squad brings, giving Hodgson exciting options if not much experience in France.
The 26-year-old is unconcerned by that, though, and believes the youngest squad in France are capable of perhaps ending the country’s 50-year wait for glory.
“I don’t see why not,” Sturridge said, when asked if they could win the tournament.
“You go back years to Manchester United and the Liverpool sides and all these others clubs around the world who have had young squads and had young players who have had a gelling period and they’ve been successful. I believe that we can do that. I don’t see why not, why we won’t be successful in the competition because we’re young.
“I don’t think age has anything to do with it. I think it is more so how you play as a team and gel as a team.”
Sturridge is clearly excited by the future and preferred to focus on that rather than previous poor starts at major tournaments, with England having never won their opening European Championship match.
Ending that streak against Russia would be a timely boost and the players head to Marseille in high spirits.
“I think you look at players’ mentalities and they bounce back,” Sturridge said when asked about whether the scars of Brazil could linger.
“They bounce back from situations, not just from national team but club level also.
“You bounce back and we know what we have to do. We know there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us because we’re England, we’re proud, we’re strong.
“It’s important for us to enjoy it, for myself and for everyone here it is about enjoying it.
“I don’t feel there is any pressure on us. I feel we’re going to thrive on the occasion and enjoy the occasion and that’s what it is all about.”
Former Sheffield United defender Kyle Walker says the fight is still on for starting places against Russia.
The Tottenham right-back is going head to head with Nathaniel Clyne for a spot in Hodgson’s starting XI and may just have nudged in front with a man-of-the-match performance against Portugal last week.
He has also started three of the last four England matches and has the benefit of playing his club football with other likely starters Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Danny Rose.
But he is not considering it a done deal and is working hard to catch Hodgson’s eye before Saturday’s clash in Marseille.
“You’re always coming out trying to impress. You want that shirt come Russia,” he said. “It’s difficult, you don’t know who he’s going to pick but that’s not up to me to decide.
“All season at Tottenham, with Kieran Trippier, I’ve had someone snapping at my toes. I think it’s good to have that healthy competition.
“Nathaniel is a great player so whoever gets the nod for the Russia game I’m sure they’ll do well. He’ll get my full support if he is starting. If we don’t get the nod we need to show our encouragement and togetherness as a team to push the other lads on who are playing.”