FootballInternational Football

Southgate’s conservative approach risks condemning Jack Grealish to England’s long list of overlooked mavericks

November 11, 2020

CHRONOLOGY is ruthless. Jack Grealish, who was 25 in September, is now closer to 30 than he is to 20. That’s how it works. He has two caps for England, one more than his great-great-grandfather Billy Garraty managed for the country but, given his form in the Premier League over the last 12 months, still not nearly enough.

Grealish has to convince Gareth Southgate, who was a 25-year-old Aston Villa player himself when he made his debut for England in 1995, that he is worth using in international football. And so far, that has proven difficult, but why?

Let’s go back to the summer of 1996, a time when Southgate had established himself in England’s defence but was not one of the star names in the team. Terry Venables’ side were hosting the European Championships and found themselves playing a semi-final against Germany at Wembley. The stars of the XI (and it was very much an XI, because Venables refused to make a single substitution in 120 minutes of intense football) were Alan Shearer, David Platt, Stuart Pearce, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham, who all took and scored penalties in that order in the shootout that followed the 1-1 draw.

Everyone, especially the current England manager, knows what happened next but if a lunging Gascoigne had connected with Shearer’s pass in extra-time to score a game-ending Golden Goal then Southgate would never have had to step up to the penalty spot. The failure of the flair player forced the team man to become the centre of attention. These things can echo down the ages.

But it’s unfair to pinpoint a single incident and single person as the cause of England’s football exceptionalism. It’s the mistaken subtext that runs through the nation’s history. Let’s go back to 1989 and the popular Football Picture Story Monthly series, and number 72 ‘Coward on the Wing’. It’s a classically structured story about a gifted, mercurial winger with an attitude problem and a deep-seated fear of being tackled. Gruesomely aggressive senior pros line up to lecture young Lenny Vernon about how being physical is much more important than showing any form of artistry or skill.

His career flounders as he jumps out of crucial challenges to avoid injury and it’s only once he suffers what looks like a fairly severe concussion crashing into a goalpost that he succeeds in adding the raw aggression to his game his bellicose team-mates and manager have been demanding. Kids reading this at the time will have been served a simple and familiar message: get stuck in, don’t mess around with the ball, head injuries are useful.

Now one thing absolutely no-one can level at Jack Grealish is that he avoids getting involved in the rougher elements of the game. Since the start of last season Grealish has been fouled 196 times in the Premier League, 52 more than any other player. In the same period, he has created 110 goalscoring chances and only Kevin De Bruyne (156) has more. Incidentally, De Bruyne has been fouled only 35 times while doing so, which is quite the contrast.

This season Grealish has ascended to a higher plane of production, and given his team’s start to the campaign compared to where they were this time last season, makes him one of, if not *the*, player of the season so far. The Gascoigne comparisons might be a bit trite and they might annoy Southgate on some levels but Grealish’s ability to carry the ball with purpose is the sort of skillset that only emerges in English football once a decade if we’re lucky. Saying that Grealish “doesn’t fit” the way England play when the nation is founded on a long line of 7/10 performances that occasionally carry it to the final stages of the tournament if the draw is kind is spirit-crushingly conservative.

In the Premier League this season Grealish leads the division in progressive carry distance (1.3km), has created more goalscoring chances after a carry (a carry being when a player moves more than five metres with the ball) than anyone else (nine) while only Son Heung-Min (11) and Mohamed Salah (10) have had more shots after carries than him. Would South Korea or Egypt fail to build their starting XI around their main men? No.

The optics around this international break are not great, with players travelling between countries under varied levels of lockdown and some even being refused permission to go by their clubs. In this situation it feels like aesthetic poison to once again keep Grealish on the periphery of the team. People want to be entertained and for once we have someone who can do it. Let’s not add Grealish to the long list of English mavericks with a handful of caps and a heartful of regrets.