After two glaring errors by Liverpool star Dejan Lovren gifted Tottenham a 2-2 draw at Anfield in a crucial Premier League clash back in February, Reds fans around the world were calling for his head.
But now after a stand-out performance that saw Croatia come back from 1-0 down to defeat England in the World Cup semi-final in Moscow, the 29-year-old centre half has plenty of reason to smile.
Even better for the much-maligned Croat, his chief tormentor that night back in February – Harry Kane – was kept relatively quiet and off the score-sheet.
“This feels incredible, especially after everything that was said about us before the game,” said Lovren after the come-back win.
“We showed our character, we showed that we deserved to be in the final and people should respect us.
“Sometimes it is unfair. Before this game they said we are tired but we showed in extra-time we had fresher legs than them. Simple as that. The difference was mental.”
Lovren feels that after appearing in the Champions League final with Liverpool, and now the World Cup final, he has earnt respect rather than revilement.
“Sometimes, the criticism is unfair and people should respect me also,” he continued. “Without being arrogant I think I have [been proved to be one of the best defenders in the world]. Definitely.
“If somebody told me that from the beginning of the season that I would be in two of the biggest finals in the world I would have signed straight away.
“I went through a lot of s*** and I would say it is coming back.”
Lovren also revealed that Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp sent him a text him after the match.
The Reds manager told Lovren he was “proud” after seeing the defender help his side to a World Cup final against France.
“He’s [Klopp] proud of me and what I’ve achieved,” said Lovren. “He knows what I went through. He’s a good man. Even in tough times he was always backing me up. I appreciated that.”
Finally Lovren expressed his empathy for team mate Jordan Henderson who won’t be joining him in the final on Sunday.
“I am a little bit disappointed for my team-mate [Jordan Henderson] because he also deserved to be in the final. I wish we could both be in the final for that game but there is only one winner.”
The Three Lions’ journey to their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years has captivated a nation and is born of the group’s unique bond.
Togetherness has been a buzzword throughout the tournament, where remote Repino – a small tourist town 29 miles north-west of St Petersburg – has become the unlikely base for England’s quiet revolution.
“I think not just the players but the staff behind the scenes, making the hotel feel like you are at home – pictures of family in rooms, things to do in the hotel,” said Young, who missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout defeat to Italy at Euro 2012.
“If you said to any player that we were going to be together for seven weeks, there was a lot of talk of being bored, but it’s not like that at all.
“It’s felt like a good holiday we’ve been on, and we’re enjoying every moment of it. No boredom at all.
“Everyone gets on well and if you’ve got that off the pitch you can take that onto the pitch. Fans, staff, players, everyone can see how well we click together.”
There is a spirit among a squad low in terms of international experience but brimming with confidence and potential.
Young is the oldest member of Southgate’s group and turned 33 on Monday, but the celebrations are on hold – just as they were after the comfortable 2-0 quarter-final win against Sweden.
“We haven’t won anything yet so there’s no point in celebrating,” the attack-minded left-back said.
“It was nice to get the victory but I think the celebrations were muted because there’s still big games to come up.
“There’s still a lot to play for. I’ve said all along that the team spirit we have got here has been fantastic and I think you see that in the way we celebrate after a game.
“We get ourselves back to the hotel, recover, prepare the right way and go for the next game.”
Young believes England have a “great chance” to go on and win the World Cup this week, but there is little chance of Southgate’s men taking semi-final opponents Croatia lightly.
“I think it is one of them things as a kid that you always dream of playing in a World Cup and you dream of winning the World Cup,” the Manchester United man said.
“But we are not going to get too far ahead of ourselves and get carried away.
“The boys’ feet are on the ground and everyone is pulling in the same way.
“We have just got to prepare in the same way as we have for all other games. It’s another game coming up and that is how we have got to see it.
“Croatia are a very good team. They are not in the semi-final for no reason. Obviously, we’ve got to be prepared for them.
“They have the likes of Luka Modric in the team – he’s a fantastic player – but they have other players around the squad that are going to be difficult opponents.
“But we can’t concentrate on them. We’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and that is what we will be doing going into the game.”
Young brushed aside talk of England having more support on Wednesday, but spoke openly about the impact that being taken to extra time and penalties in both knockout games, against Denmark and Russia, could have on Croatia.
“I think, especially physically, it is demanding on the body to go 120 minutes in a game and then obviously you’ve got to fly back as well to base,” he said.
“We felt that and now they have done twice so it could play a major advantage.
“But we know it is going to be a tough game and we’ve got be mentally and physically prepared for what they bring and will throw at us.”
Years of major tournament disappointment has led to waning excitement around the Three Lions, but this summer has seen hope and excitement return in spades.
England’s impressive group-stage display was followed by a shoot-out triumph against Colombia and surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win against Sweden, propelling the country to a first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Croatia are all that now stands between Gareth Southgate‘s men and a chance at replicating the heroes of 1966, with Walker aware of just how big a chance the semi-final represents.
“It’s a great opportunity,” the England defender said. “I think we all know that.
“I think it’s the best opportunity that England’s ever had (since 1966), and probably might ever have because no disrespect to Croatia but the other side of the group was a lot more difficult.
“They have got some fantastic players. I’ve played with Luka (Modric) and for me he is one of the best midfielders in the world by far.
“But we have to just adapt ourselves to their game plan, but also they have to worry about us.
“We’ve played well, we’ve played well in the games. I think we’ve shown immense character.
“The goal going in against Colombia and us digging ourselves out and stepping up for the penalties and the five penalty-takers taking them, full credit to them.
“So we have shown character, we’ve shown belief and I think that’s what is going to get us over the line in this game.”
To even be at this stage is a remarkable change in fortunes given it is just two years since the Euro Championship humbling by Iceland – a galling loss compounded by Sam Allardyce’s ignominious exit after 67 days.
Southgate has manfully steered around the ship and Walker does not think the manager “gets as much credit as he deserves” for his work in bringing this group together.
“It’s special,” Walker told IRN. “It really is. That’s the only word I can describe it because we’re all a family.
“I said at the start of this that over this summer, this is our family.
“You obviously have got your family at home and the kids that you need to keep in touch with, keep checking in or the missus might go mad. But this is our family now.
“(We hoped we would have) a long month together, which we have done.
“And we’ve completed a World Cup. We have completed it.
“If we get to the final or if we don’t get to the final then we’re one day short, you know it has been an absolute pleasure of an experience to share not just with the players but the staff, even the media staff and you guys as well.
“Thank you for coming on our ride with us.”
While cosseted away in a forest in western Russia, social media has allowed Walker to get a flavour of the atmosphere and “buzz around the nation” that is unlike anything he has seen in his lifetime.
That fervour has taken captain Harry Kane‘s popularity up a notch, with England’s Golden Boot leader now tantalisingly close to lifting the World Cup .
“Harry is just a goal machine,” Walker said of his former Tottenham team-mate.
“I remember watching him at Tottenham coming up, a few times as a 15-year-old kid and he was just banging in goals then – and he’s just carried that on season after season.
“I remember people saying he’s going to be a one-hit wonder and he’s just completely proven them wrong and blown it out the water.
“It’s full credit to him because the work he puts on and off the field is first class and he adapts himself and dedicates himself to the game, so his rewards are coming from it.”
Walker is also confident that Raheem Sterling will also see his hard work rewarded.
Despite the Manchester City forward looking sharp in Russia, his lack of goals has led to undue criticism from some quarters.
“Raz, he’s a nightmare for us defenders,” Walker added. “An absolute nightmare.
“People think he’s weak but I’ve seen countless players ride his back because he’s that strong.
“He’s quick, he’s dynamic and hopefully the goals are going to come now in these two last important games.”