A couple of hours ahead of his Hockey World Cup semifinal against Belgium on Saturday, England's midfielder Barry Middleton will begin to feel the butterflies in his stomach. "I'll eat, sleep and go for the team meetings. Then I'll start feeling it. That for me is the worst time, just sitting around and waiting for the game to start. You start to overthink stuff. So you just have to trust the work you have done. You just have to believe in that," he says.
Middleton has been an island of calm in the English midfield, shepherding the side to a last four appearance for only the fourth time in their history. Yet for all his solidity, Middleton always feels this way before games, right from the time he earned his first England cap as a 19-year-old. That was in 2003, where he came on against Belgium at the Canterbury Club.
It's been 15 years and in his words "four hundred and something" (It's actually 430) games since then. He stays clear off social media ("too much negativity," he says). He's the most capped player currently active in international hockey, the second most in history (Teun de Nooijer leads the way with 453) and 'one of the greatest players to wear the England jersey', according to coach Danny Kerry.
While the nerves have never faded, Middleton's now learned to deal with them better.
"The big thing I've learned from my career is that everyone gets nervous. So now I just embrace it rather than being -- for want of a better word -- 'manly'. I'll admit I am nervous rather than try and pretend to be tough," he says.
Middleton wears his seniority lightly. He finds self-deprecating humour in the fact that he will celebrate his 35th birthday in about a month. "Perhaps I can play the Master's World cup. That's my target," he says. His absence on social media is decidedly old fashioned and he doesn't really care for counting his caps. "It's easier when you get closer to some milestone. So when you get a hundred caps, you sort of know and then all of that just goes away," he says.
It doesn't really matter to him that he is closing down on De Nooijer's record. "When I started playing, I was just really happy at that time to get one cap," he says. Back then, it was the challenge of playing that drove him. "You are always looking forward to the next challenge. At that time I was just glad to be getting out of the U-21s to the seniors. Then it was about going on to compete in big tournaments and then it was about going to tournaments hoping to win them," he says.
Middleton's immediate target is winning the next couple of matches for England. He'll have to play through the pain in his right middle finger, swollen after it took the full brunt of a Gonazalo Peillat drag flick in England's quarterfinal win. Over the years he's picked up more than his fair share of injuries - dislocated ankle, broken toe, hamstring - "Just a few bruises here and there," as he puts it.
"There was a quote from someone that there's maybe three days in the year where you feel fresh as a sportsperson and it's not about playing on your best on those days. It's about who can play their best when they are a bit injured, a bit tired and fatigued and under pressure," he says.
Middleton plays through it because that's exactly what he wants to do. "He just loves it. He always has. We knew right from the juniors that someone with his attitude would always go on to be an exceptional player," says Kerry, who had coached Middleton during his junior days as well.
"I've loved hockey. People see that when I play. I try to have a smile on my face. Because I always appreciate what I've been able to do for as many years of my life. I don't want to say how many. Because that is too many," he says.
He doesn't say how many more years that's going to be the case. Middleton isn't really looking that far ahead into the future. "As you get older, you take things more day by day and tournament by tournament. There's no plans yet. Play the last two games here and we will see what comes after that," he says. Which explains his irreverent take about making the squad for the 2020 Games. "What about Tokyo? For a holiday? I've heard it's a lovely place," he jokes.
Which is why for now his task is simple. Get through the next couple of games for England. While he's gone through it all before, there are several in this England squad who will be playing their first World Cup. Until now the new faces have seemed unfazed. Middleton knows from experience that won't be the case in Saturday's semifinal, but he's there to guide them through it. "It's about embracing it and being honest about it," he says. "They might be more nervous close to the match but we will speak about it, they will be more open about it and that should help them through the match."