Boro midfielder Stewart Downing knows only too well what is going through the minds of the England squad this week as the countdown continues towards the start of the World Cup.
The former Boro Academy youngster was a member of Sven Goran Eriksson’s squad 12 years when the “Golden Generation” headed for the World Cup in Germany.
Downing was a fresh-faced 21-year old when he travelled to the World Cup as part of an England squad that included the likes of David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, and Michael Owen.
“I was so young at the time, it was an amazing experience for me,” said Downing.
“Getting the call was unbelievable and to be part of it was something I will never forget and I will always be proud. I’d been injured, but I came back towards the end of the season and must have played well enough to get recognised.
“There were a lot of experienced players there – and a lot of quality – and maybe because I was so young it was a different experience for me. It was exciting for me, and when I was there, it was like ‘wow’. I didn’t want to go home when it came to an end.”
Downing’s World Cup bow came as a second half substitute in England’s opening game 1-0 win against Paraguay, and also came on a substitute against Trinidad and Tobago when two goals in the final 10 minutes secured victory.
He also came on as a sub in the Round of 16 win against Ecuador, and watched from the bench as England fell in the quarter-finals, losing to Portugal on penalties after drawing 0-0 in open play.
Four years later, with Fabio Capello in charge, Downing wasn’t involved as England lost out to Germany in the first knockout stage in South Africa, while in 2014, England finished bottom of their group.
2006 remains the closest England have come in recent years as Gareth Southgate and his squad jet off to Russia this time around.
“There is always a level of expectation,” he said. “In 2006, there was a lot of expectation, and maybe not as much this time around, but that’s a good thing.
“I know Gareth well and know what he is about, and he is a terrific manager and he’s excellent with the players. You can see by the things they have done during the build-up both on and off the pitch, that there is a great respect for him and there seems to be a great understanding.
“It goes without saying that we have some very good players out in Russia, and they will know what they are capable of and will believe they can do well. People will look at England’s group and say ‘oh they can do this or that,’ but believe me you can’t underestimate anyone.
“Gareth will want the players to relax and enjoy it, but equally he will have them focused, and there will be a real determination among them to see how far we can go. It’s a cliché, but you really have to treat each game as it comes.
“How far can we go? Who knows. I think we could do well out there, but I’m not going to make rash predictions.”
With the World Cup getting underway, the Boro midfielder has had more pressing matters on his agenda. He married last weekend and is now combining his honeymoon with preparations in readiness for the return to pre-season training at the end of the month.