The Reading goalkeeper has described his unexpected England call-up as a dream come true, the final twist in a crazy season
Alex McCarthy attempts to explain what has just happened but when your world has been turned upside down it is not easy. The Reading goalkeeper calls it "overwhelming" and says that he needs to "pinch" himself. "I can't really describe it," he adds.
A spot of shopping in London at Thursday lunchtime has been interrupted by a text message from the Football Association, which tells him that he has become England's newest international call-up. With one ping of his phone, McCarthy has become even more than one of the hottest summer transfer properties.
He will be a part of Roy Hodgson's squad to take on the Republic of Ireland at Wembley on Wednesday week and then travels to Rio de Janeiro to face Brazil at the reopening of the 78,000-capacity Maracanã, the venue for next summer's World Cup final. Five years ago, McCarthy was playing in front of 70 or 80 people for Team Bath in the Conference South.
The 23-year-old is sitting in the grounds of a country house hotel in Surrey. It has been only two hours since the text and it has not sunk in. The holiday to Marbella and Las Vegas with friends has already been cancelled and his phone has been "going mental". "To get an England call-up is a dream come true," McCarthy says. "I'm looking forward to the summer even more now."
It is the final twist of a wild season, in which McCarthy has made his Premier League breakthrough but also endured the misery of four and a half months out with shoulder trouble. He has enjoyed personal highs, none greater than the heroic performance in his comeback game against Liverpool last month, but then there has been Reading's relegation.
After only 12 Premier League appearances, it feels as though the England recognition has come quickly yet McCarthy's destiny has long been signposted. Speak to anyone at Reading and they will talk up his attitude as much as his agility, shot-stopping prowess and commanding 6ft 5in frame.
Nigel Adkins, the manager, says that McCarthy can be "a top-four keeper" and his Liverpool counterpart, Brendan Rodgers, was lavish in his praise after being thwarted by McCarthy in the 0-0 draw at the Madejski Stadium. "That's arguably the best goalkeeping performance I've ever seen," Rodgers said. "To perform like that after so long out was absolutely staggering. He's genuinely going to be a top, top keeper."
McCarthy's calm and grounded nature is striking and it owes much to his sense of where he has come from. He has played in all four of England's divisions, having been on loan from Reading at Aldershot Town in League Two; Yeovil Town and Brentford in League One, and Leeds United and Ipswich Town in the Championship. He also featured for Reading in the Championship and he had non-league loans at the very outset at Woking and Cambridge United in the Conference and with Team Bath. There is little prospect of the success going to his head.
"By playing in all the leagues, it feels like I've earned my way there," McCarthy says. "Going on loan, seeing the training facilities and the stadiums they play in and working your way up makes you appreciate what you have. Playing in front of massive crowds now is unbelievable. I never take anything for granted."
McCarthy is measured on the subject of his domestic future. He has been linked to Liverpool and Arsenal, among other clubs, and he admits that "obviously, everyone wants to play in the Premier League". The trajectory of his career path has risen inexorably and it would lull, at the very least, were he to remain at Reading for a tilt at the Championship. McCarthy is comfortably the club's most saleable asset and it is hard to know how they may react to a hefty bid or, indeed, how the player would, too.
The line is that McCarthy is staying put and he points out on numerous occasions that he has "two years left at Reading" and, by extension, "my future is here". What is clear is that he wants to play and any offers from elsewhere would have to be weighed against what he now has. McCarthy entered Reading's academy at 17, after they picked him up from Wycombe Wanderers.
"I would not want to go somewhere and not play, even if it's the biggest clubs," McCarthy says. "I can totally see why Jack Butland signed a deal with Stoke [despite interest from Chelsea]. With him playing every week for Birmingham, he doesn't want to go back to being on the bench. As a goalkeeper, you have a longer career and so you don't want to force things when you are 23. You don't want to get a move and then it all stalls. It is easy to get forgotten about. You want to make the right moves at the right time."
McCarthy's display against Liverpool indicated a man in a hurry to make up for lost time. He had injured himself when he collided with a post against Queens Park Rangers last November and, after surgery, it was feared that he might miss the remainder of the season.
"It was the toughest time of my career," he says. "I never thought then that I'd end the season being picked for England. Normally, I need a couple of games to get back into the flow but I just took off from where I left off. It's been an unbelievable season, more ups than downs.
"It's nice to hear comments like those from Brendan. I worked with him at Reading, although not too closely. I also swapped shirts with Pepe Reina [the Liverpool goalkeeper]. He just said: 'Wow. Unbelievable saves.'"
McCarthy has been to Brazil before. His father, a property developer, used to work as an engineer and it took him overseas. "I went out there for three weeks when I was eight or nine," McCarthy says. "To Rio, São Paulo … I just remember the beaches and the beach football. I didn't see the Maracanã. When I get there, I'll be like: 'Wow, this is actually happening.' And yeah, it will be a far cry from 80 fans at Team Bath."