England Under-21 winger Adam Johnson was ridiculed by his Middlesbrough team-mates after being linked with Real Madrid – but this week showed he may be comfortable after all in the company of galacticos.
The 21-year-old described his goal against Ecuador's senior side at Malaga's Estadio La Rosaleda as the finest of his career, even though he was disappointed at the Under-21s eventually losing 3-2 to opponents containing players with World Cup finals experience.
Johnson was tipped to be playing regularly at La Liga stadiums last month, with Real manager Juande Ramos thought to be interested in bringing the Middlesbrough player to Spain after monitoring the youngster while coaching Tottenham Hotspur.
"I was flattered to be linked with Real Madrid," said Johnson. "I've been getting a lot of stick from the lads about it. They weren't having it. The lads were saying it couldn't be true that you could go and play for Real Madrid. It was the usual banter from them. I was getting all of it, calling me a galactico and getting shouts of 'Raul'."
Johnson flicked the ball over two defenders before finding the top corner against Ecuador. Fraizer Campbell added another, before the South Americans fought back in the second half, their winner coming from Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo.
"The goal was probably the best of my career," Johnson confirmed. "It was brilliant to score goals like that, but disappointing to be on the losing side."
Johnson has been pleased with his opportunities at Middlesbrough but is desperate for a win to kickstart their season, starting with the FA Cup match at West Ham United on Saturday. "It's a massive game and a good distraction for us," he said. "We've done quite well in the cups this season and got a good result at Wolves.
"Everyone is confident going to West Ham. It would be nice to give the fans something else to think about this season. We just need a win, because our performances recently haven't been that bad. It's just getting that elusive goal. Against Manchester City, we missed a lot of chances – those who watched the game will have seen that. We have to be solid now and get a win that will lift us."
Boro could do with a slice of luck to help get them started. "We need one to go in off someone's backside," Johnson suggested. "It's round the corner, and we hope it'll happen on Saturday."
Meanwhile, City defender Micah Richards will need assessment before the Premier League match against Portsmouth at Fratton Park this weekend. The 20-year-old picked up a knock and came off at half-time in Spain.
The England Under-21 coach, Stuart Pearce, insisted that his youngsters will emerge stronger after losing their long unbeaten run against Ecuador. "It was about experience and it served us very well," Pearce said. "They had 500 senior caps between them, we had five.
"The two goals would grace any pitch in the world," Pearce said. "We were happy with 2-0 against an Ecuador senior side. We gave away three sloppy goals. Maybe a draw would have been fair but the main thing was playing against a team with a different style."
Ecuador struck back through Joffre Guerron and Pablo Palacios, then the Manchester City striker Caicedo scored the winner with eight minutes remaining. "I didn't have him at City," said Pearce, who was manager at Eastlands until 2007. "I didn't have any money to buy anyone.
"It was a friendly game in name alone," Pearce added. "We were chasing the game at the end, pushing them to the wire. The important thing was the reaction of the players to what the senior players were doing. We were outstanding in that respect. They took over-zealous challenges and you have to walk away. Sometimes with England players we have to be a bit cuter."