BEN GIBSON is hoping an extended run in Middlesbrough’s starting line-up next season will help cement his place in the England Under-21 team.
Having received his maiden call-up to the Under-21s last month, Gibson was a key member of Gareth Southgate’s side at the Toulon Tournament in France.
The 21-year-old defender, who had previously represented England at Under-17 and Under-18 level, established himself as one of Boro boss Aitor Karanka’s first-choice defenders in the second half of last season.
He has moved ahead of Jonathan Woodgate and Daniel Ayala in the Middlesbrough pecking order, and after relishing his elevation to the Under-21 set-up, is hoping his senior status at club level will enable him to play a major role in the ongoing qualifying campaign for next summer’s European Championships in the Czech Republic.
“I’ve loved every minute, playing with the best players in my age group and against better quality opposition,” said Gibson. “I’ve learned a lot working with the staff, and it’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed doing and want to strive to do more of.
“The lads and staff have been brilliant, and made it really easy for me to come back into the England set-up. The manager (Southgate) was the first person I saw when I walked through the doors, so he was quick to show me around and introduce me to everyone.
“I was lucky enough to know a few of the lads from before, and have maintained friendships with them since day one. So I can’t thank everyone enough for that as I’ve fitted in smoothly.”
Gibson’s elevation to Middlesbrough’s first team coincided with a magnificent defensive run in the second half of last season that saw the Teessiders keep 14 clean sheets in the space of 22 games.
His partnership with Kenneth Omeruo was a key factor in that defensive reliability, and Karanka will be doing all he can to persuade Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho to loan Omeruo to the Riverside for the second season in succession.
Karanka will also be signing a new right-back this summer after releasing Stuart Parnaby, Frazer Richardson and Jozsef Varga, but with wholesale changes unlikely, Gibson is hoping Boro will build on their strong finish to last season when they kick off a new campaign in August.
“I want to start next season as the number one centre-half and play a full season, and hopefully achieve promotion with Boro,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking to do.
“There’s a long season ahead of us, but if I can start well and we can carry on in the fashion that we ended last season, there’s no reason why we can’t do that. We’ve got a good manager and good players, so I’m hopeful we can do that.”
Meanwhile, England under-17 midfielder Callum Cooke is determined to break into the Boro picture after parading the European Championship trophy around Wembley on Friday.
Boro's Cooke converted his spot-kick as the Young Lions defeated Holland 4-1 on penalties in the final just under a fortnight ago in Malta.
The whole squad and staff were invited by The Football Association to attend the England v Peru match on Friday night, and they enjoyed a roaring reception from the crowd as they went on a lap of honour prior to kick-off.
Cooke said: “I still can’t put it into words. It is an unbelievable feeling coming back and getting greeted by everyone – I felt like a hero.”
He continued: “I could say it has sunk in, but I don’t think it has fully yet. I haven’t been back to my club as the season has finished, but around the north east and my home town of Peterlee it has been amazing and what I dreamed of when I was a kid.”
And on the lap of honour, Cooke added that it is a moment that will live long in the memory.
“I’ve always wanted to come to Wembley, and this was my first time ever coming here, but what an experience it has been. To go on that parade around the pitch as a champion for your country - it is what I used to dream about.
“Hopefully this is just the start and the only way is up. We all know that we have a lot of hard work to put in to continue our development – but this group all have that desire and we won’t rest on this.”
And Cooke is already clear on what his next goal is. He added: “For me, I need to get back and impress at Middlesbrough.
“If I can do well for them, then hopefully I can break into that England U18 squad.
“That is a big target – as well as trying to break into the first-team at Boro.”