ACCRINGTON Stanley striker James Gray expected to be spending his summer at home. As it turned out, he was in Chile chasing Barcelona star Alexis Sanchez down a tunnel.
“I ran as fast I could,” he laughs.
Gray’s late call-up to the Northern Ireland squad for their tour of South America did not ultimately result in his first senior cap, restricted to an unused substitute’s role.
But it did provide him with experiences he is unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Gray’s world has been transformed this summer.
Once a youth player at Middlesbrough, his senior career has been spent with Darlington and Kettering in non-league, then for the past two seasons with Stanley in League Two. Loaned out to Vauxhall Motors in 2012, he was sent off 25 minutes into his debut.
But all that seems a long time ago now.
In May he got engaged to his Dubai-based girlfriend, a former beauty queen.
After that came the unexpected chance to link up with the national team for the first time at senior level for their friendlies against a Uruguay team containing the likes of Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan, then a Chile side who were able to summon Sanchez off the bench.
It was Sanchez whose contribution effectively denied Gray his international debut.
“The manager asked me to go and warm up after 55 minutes so I thought I might get on, but then Chile brought on Vidal, Sanchez and Vargas and the game changed unfortunately,” said the 21-year-old of Northern Ireland’s 2-0 defeat.
“Sanchez came on and set both goals up, just in half an hour.
“After the game I ran down the tunnel after him to ask him for his shirt.
“But he’d already given it away, he’d promised it to someone else, a fan I think.
“He’s really small, he’s the same size as Piero Mingoia!”
It is probably the first time Stanley’s 5ft 7in midfielder and Sanchez have been mentioned in the same breath.
Even for two friendly matches, Gray got a sense of World Cup fever in South America – with both of Northern Ireland’s opponents bound for the tournament.
Chile start their campaign against Australia tonight, while Uruguay face Costa Rica tomorrow.
“There were 65,000 or 70,000 there for the Uruguay game and 30,000 in Chile, because they were both really building up to the World Cup,” he said.
“When we arrived at the stadium there were 45,000 people already there, and then they were singing all through the match. It was unbelievable.
“When we were leaving Chile their team were at the airport at the same time because they were flying to Rio and the place was rammed, there were about 10,000 people there.
“People were asking me for autographs and for pictures. They could see my Northern Ireland shirt, but I’m not sure they knew who I was!”
It was Gray’s first trip to South America and he admits the conditions were not always easy as he prepares to watch how England, the country of his birth, fare in Brazil.
“I think it will be hard for them because it was difficult to get your breath back at times,” he said.
“It was warm and humid, although when we were training in Santiago we had to pack in one training session because there was a thunderstorm.
“England have prepared well, though.
“Uruguay and Chile are both in tough groups – Chile have Spain and Holland, and Uruguay obviously are in with England and Italy – but I hope they both do well after playing against them.
“To be on the bench and watch people like Cavani in Uruguay was fantastic. Luis Suarez was injured but if he comes back he will make a big difference for them.
“But I think England will beat them. They had people like Lugano at the back and they weren’t the quickest.”