Forget England manager Fabio Capello, it's the team's newly appointed head chef Tim De'Ath, formerly at West Ham and one-time caterer to Hollywood stars, who is leading the national squad to victory in South Africa this summer. Rosalind Mullen reports.
As a measure of his dedication, or perhaps optimism, England team head chef Tim De'Ath has already checked out the facilities of the hotel they would use for the final
England may not have won the World Cup since 1966, but it looks as if South Africa 2010 could change all that. Just as an army marches to victory on its stomach, today's elite robo-fit footballers rely on a carefully structured diet for their performance. Indeed, manager Fabio Capello obsesses about the importance of nutrition to such an extent that he has appointed a new chef for the England team with a remit to improve food standards.
Cue Tim De'Ath, the man charged with feeding the 23 players who'll bring the World Cup back to England - or not.
"The importance of food in the Premiership has been underrated in the past," says De'Ath. "Clubs invest in footballers and pay them a lot, but the food in some clubs is still not good. The standard at the World Cup will be to the highest degree."
In fact, such is De'Ath's own belief in the importance of food that he's even prepared to take some of the flack if it all goes pear-shaped for England. "Everyone working here has a responsibility towards the squad's performance. What I feed them is what fuels them. I can't allow them to be lethargic on the pitch," he says. No pressure, then…
Fortunately, De'Ath is more than up to the job. His cooking career started out in the usual way, working in a succession of restaurants. Then, after a stint on the QE2 cruise ship, he took a less-travelled route and started up his own business, Hollywood Catering Services, which catered for the film industry. Using mobile kitchens, he moved around the world cooking on film sets such as Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace and TV shows such as Holby City and Goodnight Sweetheart.
While his brigade cooked for the film crew, De'Ath made his priority the stars - Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Samuel L Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Ewan McGregor among others. "If any of the stars got food poisoning, it could cost £1m," he explains.
It's not much different in the football world, where the substitution of a key player because of food poisoning can lose a game. So when nine years ago De'Ath decided to sell up and take on the role of head chef at West Ham United FC it was a fairly natural transition.
"I've worked in football and in the film industry and it's the same," says De'Ath. "The footballer's diet is similar to that for actors. Cooking for an actor like Wesley Snipes who does action shots is like cooking for a sportsman."
Certainly, preparation for this World Cup is a far cry from the 1966 game when players ate pies, chips and anything else they fancied before a match. Such is the emphasis on nutritional balance for this England squad that for the past few months De'Ath has been working with members of the Football Association's medical team, including nutritionists and physiotherapists such as Dr Justin Roberts, Dr Ian Beasley and Gary Lewin.
With their input, De'Ath has drawn up a 15-day rolling menu cycle, which will include non-macho-sounding snacks such as oatcakes with cottage cheese or salmon served mid-afternoon with lashings of tea, juices and water.
"I will be feeding the top 23 players in the country, who come from different clubs and are used to eating different styles of food. The hard thing is trying to reinvent the menu and keep players interested in the food," says De'Ath.
While he is not allowed to disclose exactly what's on the menu - presumably in case Germany get their hands on it - he can tell us the type of food that definitely won't be served: namely, anything processed, such as sausages. Neither will there be rich sauces, except for a tomato sauce.
What's certain is that everything will be the best quality, from fillet steak to organic chicken to premium fish such as monkfish, salmon and so on. And you can bet that chicken will be grilled and vegetables will be steamed.
"I have a fantastic budget," says De'Ath. "Every chef would dream of having a budget like this. I can create a lot with it."
While he won't discuss the footballers' personal preferences, he reveals that West Ham players such as Rob Green and Matthew Upson are some of the healthiest eaters he's ever known, preferring to eat five smaller meals over the course of the day
In fact, there won't be much opportunity for picky eating. All the players will sit down together for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks along with the rest of the support team - about 50-60 people in total. To keep them all happy, De'Ath and his team will be preparing vast buffets with a choice of meats and fish, five types of pasta and 30 different salads.
"It's all healthy eating. They wouldn't eat fatty foods," says De'Ath.
The in-house head chef at Bafokeng Sports Complex, England's base in South Africa, is sourcing the fresh meat, fish, vegetables and fruit locally, and De'Ath has satisfied himself that the ingredients will be of excellent quality and in tune with the squad's tastes.
"There are different meats and foods in South Africa, so the squad will need to be acclimatised to it," he says.
Protein recovery drinks and shakes will be shipped over from the UK, as well as a few carefully chosen items of comfort food. According to a leaked shopping list from Tesco (see panel below), there will be plenty of the team's favourite condiments to keep them interested in their controlled diets and make sure they are eating the amount they need to.
Certainly, volume is almost as important as nutrition. All the players are on the same carbohydrate and protein-loading diet designed to fuel their bodies. Reports say some players eat at least 5,000 calories a day at specific points before a match. To prepare for a Saturday match, for example, players drop carbs from their diet from Monday to Wednesday, then on Thursday and Friday they start to pile them on. A pre-match meal might be chicken and pasta or rice. "Very plain and not too heavy," says De'Ath.
Nutrition is important not only in giving the players energy before a game, but in regenerating them afterwards. Premiership matches put a lot of stress on their bodies, with players often suffering torn muscles and ligaments, but food and protein drinks are important in helping to repair them. Similarly, the players drink about five or six litres of water a day and can lose up to 2kg in weight during a game - mostly water - which they have to replace.
So, it's countdown time. The logistics are in place and the team have just spent two weeks in Austria playing friendly matches, which gave Capello a chance to whittle down his 30-strong preliminary squad to 23 and De'Ath a last chance to hone his feeding operation.
Such is the level of preparation that De'Ath has already been out to South Africa for seven days to check out the high-altitude base camp at Bafokeng, close to the main stadium in Rustenburg as well as all the hotels. Such is his confidence that he's even checked out the kitchens of the hotel England plan to use if they reach the Johannesburg final on 11 July.
He's also met the nine-strong brigade over there who will work with him. The only chef he's taking with him is long-standing friend Lee Maycock, who will act as second chef and oversee base camp while De'Ath travels to games with the players.
Like the squad itself, De'Ath is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring the World Cup home. "It'll be full-on in July - hopefully," he says. "This is premiership cooking for our national team. It's an honour."
A BRUSH WITH DE'ATH
Tim De'Ath already knows the eating habits of several of the players likely to make the 23-strong squad because they used to play for West Ham. They include:
• Rio Ferdinand (now Manchester United)
• David James (now Portsmouth)
• Joe Cole (now Chelsea)
• Matthew Upson (still West Ham)
• Robert Green (still West Ham)
• Michael Carrick (now Manchester United)
• Glen Johnson (now Liverpool)
THE ENGLAND SQUAD'S MUST-HAVE WORLD CUP 2010 SHOPPING LIST (AS PROVIDED BY TESCO)
Reports from nutritionists in the press speculate that the prevalence of hot sauces and mustards in this shopping list reflect modern tastes and will prevent the team getting bored with their controlled diets. This is crucial, because if they start to eat less, their performance will be affected.
The items are also nutritionally sound. For instance, peppers in the condiments can raise endorphin levels and help to ease sore muscles. Similarly, the inclusion of comfort food such as custard and jam will provide familiarity as well as energy, while dark chocolate is a source of antioxidants as well as being a more healthy and filling sweet than some of the alternatives.
As for the seaweed sheets and wasabi paste - it just goes to show how sophisticated the England squad's tastes have become…
Six bottles Tabasco sauce
24 bottles peri-peri sauce
12 tubes wasabi paste
25 bottles sweet chilli dipping sauce
10 bottles English mustard
30 packs seaweed sheets
25 bags pine nuts
30 bags dried apricots
30 packs custard
30 packs vegetable stock cubes
200 bars organic chocolate
30 bags assorted herbal teas
10 packs Arborio risotto rice
5 litres olive oil
10 bottles balsamic vinegar
24 jars jam
15 bottles brown sauce