In January, England made it through a round of futsal competition for the first time – and their reward comes this week.
Having topped a competitive UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 preliminary round group in Lithuania, they now travel to Turkey for main round Group 7. Between Wednesday and Saturday they will face the hosts, Ukraine and Slovenia, all 2012 finalists. They gained experience against Turkey last month in two London friendlies, losing 5-2 and 2-0, and forward Stuart Cook – who scored in the first fixture – was grateful for the experience.
"The games were arranged before the draw but it was nice to have a look at them and test ourselves against that standard of team," Cook told UEFA.com. "We had a few players missing that will make us stronger and we can work on a few things and hopefully go one better. I know Ukraine are very good; Slovenia will be a strong side as well."
Having made his England debut in 2009, Cook – who plays for Manchester Futsal Club in the FA Futsal Super League – has seen the squad develop from perennial also-rans to competing with the best. "
Over the last 12 months we have grown massively. We have started to believe. We have picked up some good results along the way, bonded really well, kept the squad together and there is a growing belief we can go places."
In typical England fashion, though, things were far from straightforward in the preliminary round. Cook scored in an opening 4-3 defeat of Lithuania but both he and goalkeeper Samuel Murphy were sent off and had to sit out the tense 2-1 win against Cyprus that ensured progress.
"It was unbelievable, I was disappointed to be sent off in the first game but I feel I contributed pretty well, scored and made a goal, so we could take that momentum and build on it," Cook said. "[Watching the Cyprus game] was ten times worse than playing, I don't think I sat down for the full 40 minutes: me and Sam were on the edge of our seats. I don't want to experience it again, I'd rather be playing."
Cook, who recently gave up playing football for non-league Curzon Ashton FC to concentrate on futsal, is looking forward to the atmosphere at the Erzurum But Arena Sports Hall, having already shown his mettle in Kaunas against Lithuania. "It's great to play in front of a crowd – we had a sell-out against Turkey [in London] – and we seem to thrive in hostile environments. When we went to Libya [in 2009] it was similar there and we got two great results. We seem to do well in it."
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