The date had long been circled in Harry Kane‘s diary.
In the middle of an unrelenting summer, June 23 offered the opportunity to draw breath and England’s captain had a plan for how he and his team-mates could unwind.
So, at the beginning of April, Kane phoned a friend to see if he could help. To be precise, it was his Grammy-award winning friend Ed Sheeran.
There haven’t been many openings for Sheeran to perform in front of a crowd these past 15 months but that was about to change.
Kane’s request was simple: will you come and play for the England squad?
Ed Sheeran (left) performed a private concert for England stars (right) at St George’s Park before their victories over Germany and Ukraine to reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals
England have been in inspired form since winning Group D, beating Germany and Ukraine
It was not a leap of faith for the Tottenham striker to think that Gareth Southgate’s squad would progress from Group D so, without any hesitation, Sheeran agreed. He would report to St George’s Park, with his guitar, to provide some light entertainment and distraction.
When Sheeran, an Ipswich Town fan who sponsors his club’s shirts, turned up at England’s base, the identity of their last-16 opponents was not known: two televisions had been set up to simultaneously show France’s big clash with Portugal and Germany’s meeting with Hungary.
The Football Association have created an environment at St George’s Park to make the camp as hospitable for the squad as possible. On Monday, for instance, two ice-cream vans came on site to let them have Mr Whippys. What they also have is ample space for outdoor dining and the good weather two weeks ago enabled chef Omar Meziane to oversee a barbecue.
As it was a rest day — and six days before the next fixture — the squad were permitted to have a drink, having beaten the Czech Republic 1-0 to win the group. Not everyone, though, accepted the invitation to have the Bud Light that was on tap.
Once the introductions were over, Sheeran began to play.
Initially, the atmosphere was restrained. Some of his music was not the first choice of certain players, others were happy to just sit back and listen to him go through his repertoire before choosing to do some covers.
Sheeran played ‘Angels’, the old Robbie Williams fanfare, before mixing things with a more modern sound.
England skipper Kane is good friends with Sheeran (left) and called him to organise it all
Grammy-award winning star is seen celebrating an England goal against Germany at Wembley
Flowers, by Sweet Female Attitude, was also well received. He quickly made a huge impression on the group but made just as big an impact with the time he spent talking to them.
‘It was surreal, really, having a barbecue and Ed Sheeran is sat next to you playing his guitar!’ Kieran Tripper, the Atletico Madrid defender, explained.
‘I’m thinking to myself, “I’d have paid to watch this!” and there he is, sat here like we are now! He did quite a few songs, to be fair. Ten or 15, I think.
‘The best thing about it was he was going from one table to another table, he was speaking to everyone. We were asking him questions. I think it was good for him, also. You know, it brings you together as players. Ed Sheeran is singing, you are all singing along with him.’
Midway through the entertainment, it became apparent that Germany would be England’s opponents, but there was no sign of apprehension. The group knew about the opportunity that was unfolding in front of them and they were not prepared to let it slip from their grasp.
Kieran Trippier admitted singing Three Lions with Sheeran helped bring everybody together
Sensing how the atmosphere had changed, Sheeran finished his performance with the only song that was suitable for that moment.
Three Lions, an anthem for England’s football team for a quarter of century, got everyone up on their feet and, eventually, in a circle, singing along together.
Sheeran, when a guest on Peter Crouch’s TV show Crouchie’s Year Late Euros, admitted he was overwhelmed by the reception, saying: ‘I do not think there will be many moments that top that.’
He should know, too, how grateful the squad were. After so much tension and pressure, it was a much-needed release. Occasionally in sport, a bit of bonding is all that is needed for a team to take a significant step forward and that is certainly what has happened with England.
They have not looked back following their barbecue and beers with a pop music icon. It is now a case of hitting the right notes against Denmark.
England played their best game of the tournament so far last week in 4-0 Ukraine drubbing
‘I feel we have done well since the first game, but I know what you mean,’ said Trippier, who nominated John Stones as the squad’s best singer.
‘Ed Sheeran comes in, the boys are singing songs and everyone is buzzing, having a good time. It just brings you all together. We play Germany, we play fantastic.
‘We play Ukraine and the lads do unbelievable again. We’ve now got another big task in front of us.
‘We have been working hard since the last game and we’ll be ready as soon as we cross that white line. We want to win. It’ll be tough but hopefully we will.’