Playing for England is the absolute pinnacle of football – scoring on my debut against France was a dream – The Sun

PLAYING for England is the pinnacle — nothing else tops it.

I will never forget my debut. It still feels like it was yesterday; February 19, 1992 against France at the old Wembley.

It had all come about after getting a surprise call-up by then manager Graham Taylor.

I was at my house back in Southampton and I was just a young lad doing really well in the first team that season.

My eyes were on the TV with the old teletext, something that makes me feel so old now!

I was just watching and hoping and praying, and then I got a call off my old Saints boss Ian Branfoot. I wasn’t sure what or who to believe.

It was one of those where I thought someone was winding me up. I was just thinking in my head "please let this be real".

It was an even more unbelievable feeling when Taylor told me I would be starting against the French.

It was an incredible team that included the likes of Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps and Eric Cantona. They hadn’t been beaten for 20 games, so it was a daunting prospect.

The days leading up to it were so tense and nerve-racking but, in the end, it turned out to be such a great occasion.

My whole family came down to watch and luckily, just before half-time, I scored. Gary Lineker then came on and scored the second to see us win 2-0.

It was a perfect game and a perfect day for me.

More than anything you don’t want to let anyone down. There’s the excitement and the nerves and all of those different emotions.

You have this iconic ground that was the old Wembley, and it’s big enough as it is, but playing there for your country for the first time just magnifies everything.

It was only a friendly but it didn’t feel like a friendly. It felt like a life-changing opportunity for me.

I can just remember what Graham told me before we went out. He told me "I picked you for your form at Southampton, so don’t try and do anything different".

I really listened and took that on board, and it helps when you get a goal straight from the off.

The confidence I had after that really settled me down and I instantly felt comfortable in an England shirt.

You walk into that England camp at 21 and look around and there are these huge names. I had played against them but now having them as team-mates was pretty intimidating.

But I felt OK about it. I wasn’t too nervous and it was more excitement than anything else.

I had made my debut as a 17-year-old in the Southampton first team, so I felt as though this was the next logical step.

I would go on to have eight unbelievable years with England from 1992 to 2000.

I had always hoped of one day playing for my country but never did I think I would go on to be captain. Nothing gets any bigger or better. It was the absolute high point of my career.

Glenn Hoddle gave it to me for just three games to start with as he didn’t want it to affect my goal-scoring record.

But I ended up scoring on my first game as captain — and that was that.

There is nothing that can compare to walking out at Wembley or at a Euros or a World Cup with that England armband on. It’s the ultimate.

Bobby Moore though. He did what no other England skipper has done and will always be the true inspiration for any player.

But when you look at the thousands of players that have represented their country, that number gets much smaller when you consider who has actually captained their country.

To have my name alongside some true greats is an absolute privilege.

Without doubt the highlight of my England career was our 4-1 win against Holland at the Euros in 1996.
It was the best atmosphere I have ever played in, without doubt.

That rendition of "Football’s Coming Home" was spine-tingling. And to beat a Dutch side brimming with quality was truly special.

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