Just a decade on from playing in front of two men and a dog in the Essex and Suffolk Border League, Nick Pope is fulfilling his dreams by heading to the World Cup.
England jet off to Russia on Tuesday as Gareth Southgate‘s men step up their preparations ahead of the eagerly-anticipated Group G opener against Tunisia on June 18.
Few expect Pope to get a look in given his place in the pecking order, but being in the squad is a remarkable achievement in itself.
The 26-year-old only made his Premier League debut nine months ago, yet an exceptional breakthrough campaign at Burnley saw Southgate overlook long-serving Joe Hart in favour of the former non-league shot-stopper.
“Not bad, eh?” Pope told Press Association Sport of his World Cup call-up.
“Obviously it’s something you dream of when you’re a kid growing up and something that the whole country stops and watches.
“I was every bit a part of that, so to be part of this group going to a World Cup I am immensely proud.”
Pope watched the last World Cup with his mates in the Maid’s Head pub near his hometown of Soham, having just finished a loan spell in League Two with York.
Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge, Aldershot and Bury were other temporary stops after the goalkeeper joined Charlton from non-league Bury Town in 2011.
Pope impressed at Bury Town having been released by Ipswich, juggling football with his studies and part-time work such as, among other things, a milkman – a time as far removed as you can imagine from the World Cup razzmatazz.
“When I was 16, 17, I was playing what’s called the Essex and Suffolk Border League,” he said. “I think that was step seven in the newspaper when we used to look at results after on the Saturday.
“All of them are two men and a dog, really. There’s not really much difference.
“But that’s part of the experience and part of what makes you stronger, and part of what helped me get ready for going up the leagues.
“When you go to the Conference and you go to tough places like Hyde, it prepares you well.
“Hartlepool when it’s blowing a gale and the rain is thrashing down, it prepares you.
“In the smaller stadiums, you don’t get as much protection from the elements.
“Everything that has kind of helped me build up to here and all the experience good and bad you have to see in a positive light and help it to improve yourself.”
There is no doubt that Pope will embrace this summer in a similar fashion, especially given he is expected to be behind Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford.
“Me and the other goalkeepers, we’re used to it growing up,” he said of the competition to start.
“Whether it’s coming through the academy system or if you go on loan, you know that you’re never on loan as the only goalkeeper or you’re never at your club as the only goalkeeper.
“There’s always someone pushing you and someone that you’re training with every day.
“The goalie group is always there and they’re the people that you spend a lot of time with at the training ground, so it is a big part of your life and your football career.”
Hazard, Belgium’s captain, hobbled off in the 70th minute after taking a blow to the foot, but Martinez says the injury is not serious.
“Eden is okay, he had a little trouble, but it’s nothing to worry about,” Martinez said in his post-match press conference.
“I really enjoyed his performance. He was sharp and strong, he was majestic.
“At the end he just came off because he had a little bit of a dead leg, a little bit of a knock on his leg.”
The injury to Hazard overshadowed what was a positive evening for Belgium before they head off to Russia.
Romelu Lukaku was the star of the show, highlighting what a threat he will be to England when they meet in what should be a Group G decider on June 28.
The Manchester United man scored two and made one as Belgium came from behind to beat their Central American opponents, who led through Bryan Ruiz.
Dries Mertens equalised before Lukaku struck either side of half-time to take his tally to 13 goals in the last nine international games.
He then laid on a fourth for Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi.
Lukaku also allayed any fears that Hazard’s injury might be serious, telling Belgian TV: “He took a direct hit, as often. He came out as a precaution.”
The Red Devils are on an 18-match unbeaten run ahead of their Group G opener with Panama next Monday.
And Lukaku can only see his side getting better.
He said: “I think we have made progress. We did not lose, it’s important. We scored a lot of goals tonight.
“We will still progress before the match against Panama and we will give 120 per cent against them. We will continue to make progress later.”
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) June 11, 2018
The Three Lions head to Russia on Tuesday as the next phase of World Cup preparations gets under way at their team base in Repino.
Around 45 minutes away from the nearest city of St Petersburg, there have been questions about the suitability of the quiet area for players during the World Cup.
England’s much-maligned Rustenberg base in 2010 has been mentioned in the same breath, but Gareth Southgate gave short shrift to talk of boredom calling it “sad, nonsense and a big red herring”.
Welbeck echoed the England manager’s sentiments ahead of the team heading east, with injury problems of recent years giving him a philosophical outlook.
“For me, nothing like that seems to bother me,” he told Press Association Sport with a laugh.
“I’ve had surgery and then not been allowed to put weight on my leg for two months, so I’ve been stuck in a room and that sort of stuff.
“I don’t get bored now. I’ve been through that, I don’t get bored.
“I know what I can do to occupy myself, occupy my brain.
“If I am on my own, I like my own company (laughs) after that, so I am cool. That sort of stuff won’t really bother me.”
Welbeck’s approach is shaped by the eight-month injury lay-off that saw him miss Euro 2016 and has disrupted his time at Arsenal, where he has had a couple of niggling issues since recovering from that knee complaint.
“Obviously as soon as you have the injury, you’re not in a happy place at all,” the 27-year-old said.
“You know once you’ve had the surgery, you’re going to be out for a certain period of time.
“I missed the last Euros and you miss however many months of the Premier League season and that’s the one thing you want to do as a footballer – you want to be playing football on the football pitch and enjoying playing the game that you love.
“When you get an injury, that takes it away from you but there’s things that you can do to try and take it in a positive way however hard it may be.
“With it being an injury, it is so negative, but you try and get the positives out of it, see what you can do to learn from the game.
“You might not be able to play but you still learn mentally and that sort of thing, so I think you’ve just got to try and find that positive.
“At the end of the day, you’ve still got that hunger and desire to get back out on the pitch and that’s what will drive you on.”
Welbeck did enough on his return to earn a place in his third major tournament squad with England, although the road to full fitness has had bumps along the way.
“When you come back from an injury, you don’t just go ‘bang’ straight back into things,” he said.
“You have to get into the repetition of playing games, of training consistently and getting more robust because you’ve been out for a long time and you go straight back in at the top end of football.
“It’s hard, you feel it on your body, but you’ve just got to keep on sticking at it, make sure you can do whatever you can to feel as best as you can.
“You just keep ticking away and just keep on trying to improve.”
Welbeck came off the bench last Thursday to wrap up England’s 2-0 friendly win against Costa Rica and is now looking to help make amends for the World Cup four years ago.
“It makes you hungry, but I don’t think you need the extra motivation going into a World Cup,” the forward, one of the five survivors from the 2014 squad, said.
“I think it’s important not to dwell on the past.
“Obviously we know that wasn’t good enough and since then the team, the squad, has come on such a long way.
“We look forward to it with hope and optimism and focus on the World Cup positively.”