• In June 2018, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s head was jumbled with emotions
• Despair at facing a year on the sidelines due to a catastrophic knee injury
Even now, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looks back, he cannot hide his sense of wonder. It should be painful revisiting this particular night but ‘The Mayhem’ as he calls it, was actually inspirational.
In June 2018, the Liverpool midfielder’s head was jumbled with emotions. Despair at facing a year on the sidelines due to a catastrophic knee injury, frustration from being at home while his friends were in Russia and envy about the journey England were having at the World Cup.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had watched several games at home, but on the night England faced Belgium in their final Group G test in Kaliningrad he ventured to a bar at Boxpark, a retail centre in London’s trendy Shoreditch.
He wore a hat and glasses to make himself look inconspicuous but ‘it didn’t do me much good!’. He was quickly identified. If the sight of an England international in their midst left revellers doing a double-take, the experience was even more peculiar for the man himself.
“I was shocked,” he says, taking up the story in a quiet corner of St George’s Park. “It was the first time I’ve watched a football match with football fans of my team if that makes sense. I’m either always in the stadium, or at home.
“I’ve never been to a pub where there’s a bunch of Liverpool fans or Arsenal fans and watched it with them. I’ve never been to a pub with England fans, or in a big place, to see what it means to them. So I was sat there and it was surreal. I could see my mates on the screen doing what I usually do.
“Then I was looking at how everyone around was reacting to them and what it meant to them. I was almost idolising them too.
“I was like, “Oh my God! Look at what they’re doing! Do I really do that?” There were a few times, where a bit of stick was given out and I was like, “Relax! Calm down!”
Did he shout at the screens when England slipped to a 1-0 defeat? The question reduces him to laughter — “There were probably a few times I was with them! “What are you doing?” comes the mischievous reply — but the passion and the emotion inside the venue has remained in his mind.
“It was special what the World Cup created and I got to see that first-hand, in the environment, and it wasn’t what I expected,” says Oxlade-Chamberlain.
“I met a couple of doctors there, a couple of boys from the city, a couple of plumbers, they all came into Boxpark and it was just mayhem. It meant so much to everyone. I’d never seen that first-hand. It was a reminder of what it means to play for England.”
And he loves playing for England. The road back from that night against Roma in April 2018, when he suffered an injury that led to his right knee being reconstructed, has been told and, metaphorically, Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t want to reopen old wounds.
The future is what matters now and another sign that things are moving in the right direction arrived last Thursday when he woke up and saw a message on his phone from the FA to tell him he was back in the squad.
“I stumbled out of bed and there it was,” he says. “That buzz of seeing your name. I’m thankful that the manager has trusted me so soon. I always expected to get back to this level. I just didn’t know how soon it would be.”
Gareth Southgate welcomed Oxlade-Chamberlain back into the squad with a warm embrace — England’s head coach remained in regular contact all through his year out — and there should be an opportunity against Bulgaria or Kosovo to win his 33rd cap.
That figure should be higher. He would have been a starter at the World Cup, as his form for Liverpool had been so good, but that ended up being his third consecutive tournament missed through injury.
Few players have experienced such bad luck, but, having enjoyed Boxpark, he appreciates the possibilities Euro 2020, with so many games at Wembley, presents.
“The boys did themselves proud to create that environment where people have a bit more belief now,” he says. “Maybe it’s written in the stars for me to score the winner.’