By Matt Barlow
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was back home on the coast last week, enjoying the sea air, when he suffered a World Cup flashback which demanded a pause for thought.
‘I went home to see my friends in Southsea,’ he explained. ‘We drove past the pub where we watched the England-Germany game when Frank Lampard scored the goal which was disallowed.
‘I was sat there with my best friend and he said: ‘‘It’s unbelievable. Two years ago, we were in there watching it and now it’s the next tournament and you’re there with all the boys”. This puts it into perspective.
‘It’s been an amazing journey; a whirlwind.’
Last summer, Oxlade-Chamberlain was in demand among Barclays Premier League clubs having broken into Southampton’s first team with a supporting role in the Saints’ promotion from League One.
As he unwound in Portugal at the end of the season, and a £15million transfer to Arsenal began to unfold, he discovered strangers were starting to recognise him.
Little more than a year on, he is still only 18 but has played in the Champions League, and a holiday in Spain had to be cancelled to make way for his England debut in Norway and his first international start against Belgium at Wembley on Saturday.
‘I remember playing in games for Southampton like Dagenham and Redbridge away on a cold Tuesday night and I’m grateful for these experiences,’ said Oxlade-Chamberlain.
‘You have to work in those environments and it makes you strive to want to play in places like Wembley for your country. I want to work hard and make my future bright.’
Roy Hodgson hailed him as a ‘precocious talent’ when he first selected Oxlade-Chamberlain for the Euro 2012 squad and has shown faith in him since. In Oslo, Hodgson sent the teenager on to play as a second striker, behind Andy Carroll. His first touch in an England shirt was exquisite, caressing a long pass on the volley with the inside of his right foot into the path of Theo Walcott.
His second touch was less impressive, screwing a shot wildly off target after Walcott had returned the ball to his Arsenal team-mate with a low cross.
It was a similar pattern at Wembley on Saturday. There were shades of Paul Gascoigne when he squeezed through an improbable gap between Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini with an explosive burst of speed.
There was also a well-hit effort that flashed narrowly wide, followed by a slip and an ugly finish when James Milner created a good chance for him but his presence on the pitch lessens the predictability of Hodgson’s team.
When the young Gunner emerged from the England dressing room, however, he was composed and assured; not fazed by the experience. His confidence is striking and there is a fierce competitive edge, perhaps inherited from his father Mark Chamberlain who won eight England caps.
Hampshire wanted Alex to play cricket and London Irish were keen for him to adopt rugby union, but he was always set on football and is determined to contribute in Ukraine.
‘It is a start in my England career, I guess, and hopefully the first of many,’ said Oxlade-Chamberlain. ‘It is nice to win as well. We played some good stuff at times and it was against a good Belgium team. I enjoyed every minute.
‘It was a bit of a shock when I was told I was starting, but I had to remember I was one of the players put in the initial squad. I am here to do that and I have to be able to step up and perform when the manager wants me.
‘I was delighted to get the call and obviously very excited but this is football; this is what I do every day. I train and I play. It is about stepping up on the biggest occasions.
‘Playing in games for your country, you have to take it in your stride, and I think I did. I wanted to prove something. I showed glimpses of what I can do, but there’s a lot more to come from me.’
Despite the incredible rise from League One to Euro 2012, he is at ease in illustrious company. An 8-2 defeat at Manchester United on his Arsenal debut failed to rattle him, so two wins with England should be a breeze.
‘A few of the lads — Stevie G, Scott Parker, the experienced boys — had a word with me,’ he said. ‘They told me to go and enjoy it. When someone says that, you realise it’s a game of football.
‘I’ve been playing for a number of years with a professional club, and you are tuned to perform in moments like this. If you go out and relax, it comes to you.
‘If you don’t believe you should be there, you’ll struggle. At first it’s daunting to see and train with players who were my heroes, but you soon realise they’re human beings, here to do a job.’
So is Oxlade-Chamberlain. ‘I definitely feel I can make an impact on the tournament,’ he said. ‘If you don’t think that, you won’t go far. You have to believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.
‘You have to believe the manager has faith in your ability, and I believe in myself. One step at a time. I keep learning every day in training, as I am with great players. If I get a chance again, I will do everything I can to impress.’
That game in Dagenham was in January 2011, played before 3,585. After his impact on England, his next appearance may well be in Donetsk, against France, with the eyes of the world on him.