Roger Narbett treated his call-up to the England football squad as a joke. “It was in 1989 and it came out of the blue,” he says. “I answered cheekily by saying I had already been asked by Jack Charlton to cook for the Irish team.
“I was amazed when I realised it was for real. It is the dream of most young lads to be called up for England. I know I wasn’t going to play for the team, but it was the closest I would ever get.”
In fact the task in hand was to travel to Albania and cook for the England team before a qualifying match for the 1990 World Cup. Narbett, who at the time was chef-proprietor of his own restaurant, Sloans, in Birmingham, jumped at the opportunity. He later discovered that the invitation had come his way because the then chairman of the Football Association, Sir Bert Millichip, was a family friend.
It was the first time the FA had appointed a professional chef to work with the England team, and it decided to do so because of the dire catering facilities in Albania. “I took every single ingredient with me – from salt and pepper to 300 litres of water,” says Narbett. “It worked out very well. England won 2-0 and I was asked by the manager, Bobby Robson, to travel to future games in Eastern bloc countries where there were often problems obtaining certain ingredients.”
Over the years, Narbett has travelled abroad to 18 matches with the England team, and has worked with three managers/coaches – Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor and Glenn Hoddle. The highlights, until now, have been his involvement in the European championships in Sweden in 1992 and last year’s Tournoi de France, which England won. He was not required for Euro96 because the tournament was held at home.
But soon after Hoddle was appointed England coach in 1996, Narbett received the call-up once again. He travelled with the team to all of England’s qualifying matches for the 1998 World Cup in Moldova, Georgia, Italy and Poland, and is now excitedly awaiting his first involvement in the World Cup finals.
The tournament could not have come at a more convenient point in Narbett’s career. In April he resigned as executive chef of the Lygon Arms, Broadway, Hereford & Worcester, after three-and-a-half happy years in the job. “It was time to move on, and if it had not been for the World Cup I probably would have found another job by now. But I’ve decided to concentrate on the World Cup first, and hopefully find something afterwards.”
In the past, Narbett has used his holiday allowance to give him the time to report for duty with the England team. Last year he spent about 16 days at various matches around Europe.
“It’s been hard on the family at times, but they understand and my son Oliver could not be more thrilled with the various signed trophies from the team that he keeps in his bedroom.”
Narbett, who himself had early aspirations to be a professional footballer after signing schoolboy forms with Aston Villa, describes his involvement in the World Cup as “a dream”. His brother John recently retired from the game through injury, having played for Shrewsbury, Hereford, Oxford and Chesterfield.
On Sunday, Narbett flew out to the England team base, La Boule, a golf resort in Nantes, with the players following two days later. Six days earlier he had returned from La Manga in Spain, where the England team was based during the mini-tournament they played with Belgium and Morocco in Casablanca.
On one of two reconnaissance visits to La Boule before the tournament, Narbett discovered the kitchens were too small and he had to arrange for a mobile kitchen to be put on site. He also checked out all the local markets to source the best produce for the team.
Narbett is among an entourage of about 50 people who make up the England camp. In addition to the22-strong squad of players,there are Hoddle and hisassistant, 10 coaches, a physiotherapist, masseur, team manager, administration manager, security staff, PRmanager and team doctor. Narbett is responsible for feeding all of them.
“There’s a wonderful team spirit, with everyone playing a vital role in getting the players on to the pitch for each match,” he says. “My main job is to cook, but I also get involved in ensuring that the movement of the team runs smoothly, helping to load up the coach, move kit bags, and so on. We all chip in – there’s a good buzz.”
In drawing up menus for the players, Narbett works closely with Hoddle and team doctor Dr John Crane, who usually works for Arsenal. Hoddle, described by Narbett as “very approachable and precise”, is aware of the importance of eating the right food in the build-up to and during the tournament.
“The correct diet is absolutely essential for modern-day footballers,” says Hoddle. “It is an area that has been neglected in the past. In my time playing abroad (for Monaco), it was shown to me how important it is. Someone like Roger, a former player himself, is a bonus to us. He knows the players’ requirements and is able to fulfil them under any circumstances, be it at a top-quality French hotel or under more difficult circumstances in places like Moldova. He is very much part of the England team.”
Narbett’s main aim is to provide a selection of pleasing and appetising menus within the correct dietary requirements, which generally means a content of 60% carbohydrates, 25% fats and 15% proteins. As a game approaches, the carbohydrate content is increased and the fats reduced.
“A high carbohydrate content ensures that the player is sustained throughout the 90-minute match, as well as being able to provide quick bursts of energy. Too many fats will make the team sluggish.”
Chips, but only fat ones, may be available on the menu up to three or four days before a match. Two days before the match, the fat contents of dishes are closely monitored, and items such as pasta and rice are increased.
“Feeding the body with all the right nutrients helps to ensure that a player’s body is in peak physical condition, as well as contributing towards the right mental attitude,” says Narbett.
A typical pre-match meal, which will be eaten at 3pm for an 8pm kick-off, will include vegetable crudités and low-fat dips, soup, spaghetti – with either a tomato or a lean mince Bolognese-style sauce; braised chicken or steamed Dover sole with a choice of low-fat sauces; spinach, broccoli, plain boiled rice, bread rolls, low-fat apple pie, low-fat yogurts, mineral water and apple juice.
The players will then rest, and perhaps sleep, before being offered – 90 minutes to two hours before walking on to the pitch – tea and toast and plain boiled rice. Narbett also prepares a nutritional drink, which is available on the pitch.
Equally important is the food served to the players after a match to allow the body to recover. Sandwiches, Danish pastries, bananas and Snickers bars will be served on the coach from the stadium to the airport, followed by a meal of lasagne or cannelloni on the return flight to the team base in Nantes.
Although Narbett personally prepared the in-flight meals between Spain and Morocco last month, he has simply devised the menus for the in-flight caterers during the World Cup.
Special requests from the players are catered for – as long as they fit in with dietary requirements. One pasta dish that Narbett will create – with ham, peas, cräme fraŒche and parmesan – was requested by a player who has had Italian connections.
“I’m doing the next best thing to running out with the team on to the pitch itself,” he says. “I’m confident we can go all the way to the final.”