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My (brief) England career

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Michael Gray | 08:16 UK time, Friday, 20 November 2009

Having had a break from domestic fixtures, we have all been focused on international football and I think now is a good opportunity to reflect on the way things are going for England.

I have to say that Fabio Capello has done an amazing job as England coach. The Italian seems to have instilled confidence into every player who has played for him.

Yet there is also the fear factor that you don't want to be the person in the team who slips up because he is the kind of person who can come down on you like a ton of bricks.

Capello has got England playing really well. The first time people really sat up and took notice was when we beat Croatia 4-1 away from home in World Cup qualifying. Having been humbled by Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, it just showed how far England had come in a short period of time.

Capello's England were first class from the first World Cup qualifying game to the last.

Looking back on my first England call-up 10 years ago, it came as a shock because I was playing in the Championship (then Division One) for Sunderland.

We were flying at the time and playing some excellent football, eventually finishing the season with 105 points. That was a record points tally and stood until it was eventually beaten by Reading a couple of years ago.

I was playing at the top of my game but it was still a surprise when team-mate Kevin Phillips and I were called up given that we played for a Championship team. It came towards the end of the season and it was a great feeling.

Kevin Keegan (left) in discussion with Michael Gray Gray was extremely impressed with the way Keegan treated him

It was out of the ordinary then for Championship players to be in the England reckoning. People had asked us if we thought we were good enough and we said 'yes'. Thankfully, Kevin Keegan agreed. The fact that Sunderland finished seventh in the Premier League with pretty much the same squad the following year proved the point.

We were having some great times under Peter Reid at Sunderland and we had just moved into the Stadium of Light, averaging close to 48,000 every game. It was a pleasure to play that kind of football but the atmosphere was electric too - it just grabbed everyone and brought out the best in all of the players.

However, I think it's highly unlikely that a Championship player would make today's England squad. You have to look at the players Capello has available.

There are some really talented players coming through in the Championship now and if they step up to the Premier League for a couple of years then they may get into the England reckoning. At the moment though I don't think there are any players ready to make that leap.

Everyone asks if I was nervous getting my first call-up and, yes, I was. But at the same time there was real excitement.

I said to myself I would go with the squad, meet the players and enjoy every single moment of it - and I certainly did that.

It was a special moment; something you strive for at the beginning of your career and when it happens you grab it with both hands. What an amazing feeling to play with three lions on your chest - just incredible.

I'd never been involved with the Under-21s or England's youth ranks so I was thrown in at the deep end in some ways.

When I got the phone call from Keegan I thought it was a wind-up. For the first few seconds I thought it was someone impersonating him but that soon went away.

It was nice to have Kevin's in the same squad as he was the only person I knew but it was still nerve wracking when we met up with the squad at Bisham Abbey. We all spent some time in our rooms before going down to dinner at 7pm.

My room was next to Kevin Phillips' and I was a bit apprehensive when we went down to meet the other players because we didn't know them. That soon went away though.

Everybody was really friendly and it was an enjoyable trip. It was an eye opener too because I'd played in the Championship and not really established myself in the Premier League.

Training-wise, the sessions were similar to what we were used to at club level, just the personnel were different!

Obviously you're with the top players in the country so the quality is there for everyone to see. It's not a case of turning up to training and going through the motions because you just wouldn't get away with it. You have to put 100% into every session. That's how I train anyway but the quality in training with England just shone through.

We did a finishing session at the end of training and I was crossing balls from the left.

On the end of my crosses were Alan Shearer, Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen. As you can imagine, there weren't many balls going wide or over the bar! It was a special thing to be part of.

My England debut came in a friendly in Hungary and I played 20 minutes as sub. We drew 1-1 and I remember warming up behind one of the goals when Ray Clemence came running down to tell one of us we were going on.

I turned my head thinking he wanted someone behind me. When I realised it was me that's when I switched on. The thought going through my mind was 'this is your opportunity, you've just got to grab it'.

The whole country is watching but you have to put that out of your mind and try to do your best as you would do for your club because that's why you're there in the first place.

I was nervous and excited at the same time but you've just got to put that out of your mind and give it your best shot. It may have been 20 minutes but it could have been two minutes, the feeling would still have been the same. It went so quickly. Everything takes over and you just want to get to the final whistle with the right result. We drew the game but I remember going back to the dressing room and my team-mates saying 'well done'.

The second game I played was against Sweden at Wembley. Graeme Le Saux was playing left-back and went off injured at half-time so I went on.

Paul Scholes was sent-off so we were reduced to 10 men but we managed to hold out for a goalless draw.

It was an amazing experience to play at Wembley in front of the England fans. That was what I wanted. It was great to get my first cap for England but to come out at Wembley and play 45 minutes was just amazing, especially with the players around me.

It was satisfying to get a clean sheet too. At Sunderland I was forever getting forward and that was the way I liked to play. But for England I was told to just keep it tight at the back because we were down to 10 men and I wasn't going to argue with the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown. I held my ground and it was an amazing day.

My first start at international level came in Bulgaria and turned out to be my third and last England appearance. It was Hristo Stoichkov's last game for Bulgaria and we drew the game 1-1 so unfortunately I didn't get any wins as an England player.

Michael Gray in action for England The only start of Gray's England career came in Bulgaria in 9 June 1999

Having said that, we were unbeaten in my time in the team too as we drew all three games I was involved in.

The trip to Bulgaria was a bit strange as it felt like we were playing in the middle of a forest. We drove through lots of trees to get to the stadium and it was packed to the rafters.

Stoichkov was a legend in his own right. His legs had gone by then but his touch was amazing and there were banners all over the place for him. I was concentrating on getting a result for England but it was nice to be a part of that match.

I couldn't thank Keegan enough for my England experiences. It was amazing to get the call-up. I didn't think I was going to get on the pitch in my first time in the squad so it was just very special.

Keegan is a fantastic man. He made everyone feel so comfortable and welcome. There were no individuals who were treated as special and everybody in the squad was treated as equal.

Keegan said that he got a phone call when he was first called up to the England squad himself but never received one when he was left out of the squad. He said he would never do that to any player and he was true to his word.

I had been in five or six squads and when he came to leaving me out he phoned me to say that he was going for a bit of experience as Stuart Pearce was coming back into the side. I told him I was really disappointed but that I appreciated his phone call. Things like that stick in your mind and he's a true gentleman.

Back to the here and now.

I'm refreshed after two weeks back on the training ground. I feel fit and strong and I'm itching to play at Ipswich on Saturday and hopefully secure a result on the road for the Owls.


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