But five years after accomplishing that mission, on a brutally humid day in Kolkata, Morgan Gibbs-White remains convinced his most important experiences during the tournament didn’t come on the pitch. The ones that shaped him as a player but more importantly as a person, the Sheffield United midfielder reflects, occurred when he stepped outside the bubble of the team hotel and discovered the real India.
“I remember this one day in particular when we went to a school in Calcutta,” Gibbs-White explains, “And all of the kids there were desperate to play footy with us, they were mad about the game and so that’s what we did.
“It was a real eye opener, though. They didn’t have a proper ball, it was just this thing made of torn up rags or whatever that they’d been able to roll together and most of them were playing in bare feet because they didn’t have the right shoes.
“I’ll never forget how happy they were to be having a kickabout with us. And I don’t mind admitting it really humbled me as a person. It made me even more appreciative of the things I had in my life.
“Before we left, we took our trainers off and gave them to the kids there. It was only a small gesture and an easy one for us to make, because we all had lots of pairs and boots back at our base. But it just felt like the right thing to do. The least we could do really. I’ll never, ever, forget that.”
GUEHI, FODEN AND COOPER
Gibbs-White is sitting behind a desk inside the Randox Academy’s media suite as he traces his journey through the game since returning from the sub-continent. Now aged 22 and on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, he enters tomorrow’s game against Nottingham Forest as one of the most celebrated and influential members of a United team which, despite last weekend’s defeat at Millwall, remains well-placed to challenge for promotion.
But as he prepares to face opponents managed by Steve Cooper, the coach who masterminded the Young Lions’ triumph over Spain in the final, Gibbs-White’s mind inevitably wanders back to that match inside the Salt Lake Stadium. After two goals from Sergio Gomez had put Santiago Denia’s side in control, an effort from Rhian Brewster kick-started a remarkable comeback. Gibbs-White and Marc Guehi, now of Crystal Palace, were later on target while Manchester City’s Phil Foden also claimed a brace.
“There were 80,000 people watching and when Spain went ahead, the whole ground went mad,” smiles Gibbs-White, who now plays alongside Brewster at Bramall Lane. “But then when we scored, those very same people who had been cheering on them suddenly started cheering for us. And do you know what, that taught me something too. It showed the people who were there were just mad about football. It showed me how football can bring so much joy into people’s lives.”
“That was a really talented group of lads,” he continues. “And what we achieved brought us all really close together. We’re all still in touch now.
“But the biggest thing I took away from what was an unbelievable thing to be a part of was being in India. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Playing in the Premier League for Wolves and coming here to United, it’s brilliant. Seeing some crazy things over there though, and some things that really gave me a sense of perspective, looking back that’s given me a real sense of perspective. Which I think is important.”
Gibbs-White was on target when United, now seventh in the Championship table, drew at the City Ground earlier this term. Brewster also took part in that match but will miss the return after undergoing surgery to repair a damaged hamstring. A £26.m signing from Liverpool, he had just started to find his touch in front of goal when disaster struck during January’s victory over Peterborough.
“It’s such a shame because I love sharing a pitch with Rhian,” Gibbs-White acknowledges. “He’s a little b****r at times - in a good way of course - but it was brilliant coming here and knowing that I’d be working with him again, after that time in India. He’s a pleasure to work with and a true friend but he’ll come back better than ever, you can be sure about that.”
THE BIG CHALLENGE
With Forest preparing for the fixture in ninth - two places and points behind United - the outcome of their latest meeting between the two clubs is of critical importance to both of their seasons.
Having made an emotional as well as sporting investment in United - “I love it here, the people have been brilliant towards me” - Gibbs-White’s return to action following a fitness issue of his own could prove timely for Paul Heckingbottom’s side as they chase a place in the Premier League next term.
Achieving that could be their only chance of retaining Gibbs-White’s services on a permanent basis. Particularly as his tally of seven goals and five assists has not gone unnoticed at Molineux, where Bruno Lage thought long and hard about terminating Wolves’ agreement with United during the recent transfer window. “The plan is to go back, because I’m still their player. But coming here has improved me massively. First things first, I just want to help these boys and these fans, who couldn’t have shown me any more love, back to where they belong.”