Michael Carrick's first World Cup memories are of Italia '90 and tears shared with those of his hero Paul Gascoigne. Carrick even had a No 19 replica shirt in honour of his fellow Geordie and ran around dreaming as eight-year-olds do of one day wearing the real thing.
He made it in the end for a couple of games as substitute, then endured a four-year wait before being recalled last summer. When squad names and numbers were finally confirmed for next month's finals in Germany, Carrick was on the list as No 18, squeezed out of the first XI clearly defined as Sven Goran Eriksson's preferred team. But against Belarus on Thursday night at Reading, there are two reasons he will have more to prove than just about anyone else in the shadow squad lining up for England's first B international since 1998.
Firstly, Eriksson has already suggested that when meeting the strongest opposition in Germany he might opt for a holding midfielder, and Carrick's excellence against Uruguay in March established him as favourite for the role ahead of Owen Hargreaves. Secondly, Wayne Rooney's probable absence from the early games makes a 4-5-1 option increasingly likely at some stage, with Carrick's presence as the anchor in midfield offering both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard licence to push forward in the manner that suits both players.
How then does he see his prospects of breaking into the team? "The strength of the midfield speaks for itself, doesn't it, you've got world-class players in there," he says in the lilting Tyneside accent unrefined by a decade in the soft south. "Once you're in the squad you want to be pushing for a place on the pitch but the competition's so good you've got to be on top of your game and try to get a chance in the two or three friendlies coming up.
"I'm pretty comfortable playing that [holding] role if I'm asked to and letting the other lads go forward. The next challenge for me is to try to get a game in the World Cup, which is a challenge I'm looking forward to."
Starting both matches in the United States last May after so many players had withdrawn was the reward for a consistent first few months at Tottenham and the, er, spur to improve still further this World Cup season, in which he has been outstanding. To his credit, Carrick had stuck it out at West Ham for a year after the shock of their relegation, before moving round the North Circular Road.
It was a difficult introductory period at White Hart Lane, where the strange regime of Jacques Santini seemed to have no confidence in him. Santini's successor, Martin Jol, was a believer, and now Eriksson is a convert again, after waiting from August 2001 until last May to offer him another chance. "Playing both games in America was big for me, giving me a lot of confidence and experience I hadn't had before. So when I got my chance in the Uruguay game I had that little bit more awareness which helped a lot. Getting relegated at West Ham was a major setback, I was in the England set-up and going well, then I came out of that, which is when you realise how special it is to be involved. So getting back in the squad is extra special.
"It's something I've dreamed of since I was a kid so it's a sort of dreamland for me. But I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't moved to Tottenham, I'm sure of that, with the gaffer [Jol] taking over at that time. It's all about timing and people coming in at the right time and believing in you and playing you in the right position. It's been great for me and everything seems to be improving and progressing."
Progress was, however, slowed by the dramatic events of the final Premiership day, when Carrick was the worst affected of half a dozen Tottenham players carrying a virus into the critical match away to his former club West Ham. Victory, we now know, would have earned a place in the Champions' League next season. Instead his suffering side went down 2-1 and had to settle for a Uefa Cup place. "I felt pretty bad and had to come off. It took me four or five days to start eating again properly. It was a downer, but as soon as we met up you try to put that behind you, because we've got so much to concentrate on now and I'm just enjoying being part of it. We're going believing we can win it [the World Cup] with everyone peaking at the right time, though there are so many good teams now you need that bit of luck we haven't had in the past."
On Thursday he can expect to appear alongside reserves like Wayne Bridge, Aaron Lennon and Stewart Downing plus players needing match practice like Sol Campbell, Michael Owen and Jermaine Jenas. Theo Walcott is likely to appear at some stage in his native Berkshire and be given a senior debut in one of next week's two friendlies at Old Trafford. But Charlton's Luke Young withdrew from the stand-by list last night after a reaction to his ankle injury following a first full training session. Eriksson will decide today whether to name a replacement.
Carrick, at 24 still one of the younger element, will hope to take it all in his increasingly assured stride: "I'm not one of those to get too carried away with a good game because you know there's always a not-so-good one round the corner." Though not, he hopes, round the corner at the Madejski.
England B v Belarus at Reading, Thursday, 8.05. Possible (4-4-2): Green; Hargreaves, Carragher, Campbell, Bridge; Lennon, Carrick, Jenas, Downing; Owen, Defoe.
Diary Dates: Countdown to the big kick-off
21 MAY: Squad return from six-day training camp in Vale do Lobo, Portugal.
25 MAY: Wayne Rooney undergoes scan on metatarsal injury.
25 MAY: 'B' International: England v Belarus, Madejski Stadium.
30 MAY: Friendly: England v Hungary, Old Trafford.
3 JUNE: Friendly: England v Jamaica, Old Trafford.
5 JUNE: Squad arrive at World Cup base at Bühlerhöhe Schlosshotel near Baden-Baden, Germany.
10 JUNE: Group B: England v Paraguay, Frankfurt.
15 JUNE: Group B: England v Trinidad & Tobago, Nuremberg.
20 JUNE: Group B: England v Sweden, Cologne.
24 JUNE: Match 1: Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B, Munich.
25 JUNE: Match 3: Winner Group B v Runner-up Group A, Stuttgart.
30 JUNE/1 JULY: Quarter-finals 1 & 3, Berlin/Gelsenkirchen.
4/5 JULY: Semi-finals, Dortmund/Munich.
9 JULY: Final, Berlin.
10 JULY: Steve McClaren takes over as England coach.
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