England’s 1966 squad would be horrified by today’s pre-match menu. And Wenger’s to blame

Things have moved on: quinoa and protein shakes have taken the place of pies and puddings.

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England fans may be exploring the delights of kulebyaka (cabbage pie) and kvas (a drink made from fermented black bread) as they chase their team around the Russian provinces – but the boys in red won’t have had as much as a sniff of a “herring in a fur coat”. In fact, if recent tournaments are anything to go by, they’ll be eating exactly the same menu as they do at home; and it won’t include stroganoff.

Gone are the days when footballers were encouraged to tuck into red meat before games in the belief that it would give them energy. In his autobiography, the legendary striker Jimmy Greaves recalls how England keeper Gordon Banks prepared for action with “a large steak with peas and both boiled and roast potatoes, followed by a large bowl of rice pudding” – while he himself had a regular date at “Moody’s café in Canning Town, where we would order our pre-match meal of roast beef and Yorkshire with all the trimmings or pie and mash followed by blackcurrant crumble and custard”. Thirty years later, Gary Neville’s pre-match “spaghetti with sauce, yoghurt and Ribena”, and Alan Shearer’s chicken and beans both sound more like meals designed by a three-year old than a professional nutritionist.

Things have moved on: quinoa and protein shakes have taken the place of pies and puddings, and the squad of 1966 probably wouldn’t recognise the menu served up to modern players as food.

This new focus on nutrition is often credited to recently departed Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger, who brought some suspiciously foreign thinking with him when he arrived at Highbury in the mid-Nineties. The Frenchman made changes immediately, starting with a ban on the customary pre-game chocolate hit – and they weren’t popular. His views were shaped by the time he’d spent working in the Japanese league: “It was the best diet I ever had…” he said. “Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, fish and rice. No fat, no sugar…” He was swift to replace the burgers and chips served at the club cafeteria with steamed chicken, fish and veg – though Tony Adams admitted after he left Arsenal that players didn’t necessarily follow the same rules away from work: “Every Friday on Putney Bridge I went and got battered cod and a chip sandwich.”

Indeed, old habits die hard: while many younger stars employ chefs to ensure they don’t slip off the wagon at home, there was outrage at Celtic when new manager Ronny Deila banned chips and fizzy drinks from the canteen, with one player claiming it left him looking like “him out of Dallas Buyers Club” (Matthew McConaughey shed 50 pounds to play terminally ill Ron Woodroof in the 2013 film).

Across the border, David Moyes had hardly cleared his desk at Manchester United when they fired up the deep-fat fryers, according to Rio Ferdinand, who wrote in his autobiography: “Moyes has been gone about 20 minutes, we’re on the bikes warming up for the first training session without him and one of the lads says: ‘You know what? We’ve got to get on to Giggsy. We’ve got to get him to get us our f***ing chips back.’”

And when Wenger’s team met non-league side Sutton United in the FA Cup last year, Sutton midfielder Nicky Bailey had no time for the idea of lean cuisine either: “I don’t think I’ve ever had a salad in my life, or a vegetable. It’s always worked for me,” he told the Sun. “My pre-match meal is always a McDonald’s.”

Bailey’s side lost 2-0.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis