Gareth Southgate, like many of his generation, baulked a little when the Paul Gascoigne question came. There aren’t many who can bear comparison with the England No.10 who, at his all-too-brief peak, was among the best in the world.
But when Jack Grealish feints, accelerates and then glides past a player, it is the dexterity of his control rather than sheer pace which beats his man. When he passes, it is the flick of the foot and curl that often finds his man. And in those moments of beauty it is possible to see feint echoes, at least, of the darling of Italia ’90.
‘I don’t want to be dampening the enthusiasm for Jack,’ said Southgate. ‘I always answer honestly about people and when you are talking about Gascoigne, there is not a player in English history at that level in my opinion. But I don’t want that to be seen as a criticism as Jack. You just feel Gascoigne is so unique and was such an incredible player. It is a bit like talking about Bobby Moore.’
Jack Grealish dazzled on the international stage with a man of the match display against Wales
Perhaps it was because we are unlikely to see Grealish start on Sunday: Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling will take the wide positions. In different times, a capacity crowd would have been clamouring for the Aston Villa player after his man-of-the-match display against Wales. Also in different times, Southgate would not be having to consider the fact that some of his players will have to play around 65 games in nine months before the European Championships next summer.
So Grealish may have to come off the bench in the UEFA Nations League clash against Belgium, a useful pointer as to just how far England have come in two years since they were outplayed twice by the team ranked No.1 in the world at the 2018 World Cup finals.
The question though won’t go away. For England managers, it is perennial dilemma. Just how do you accommodate a maverick within an international team structure?
The Aston Villa captain’s feints, acceleration and dexterity offers England something different
His performance on Thursday provided echoes of England legend Paul Gascoigne
Later, after the main press conference, Southgate offered more context to his words on Grealish. ‘I think what I was trying to do is answer a question honestly about Gascoigne, whilst not being detrimental to Jack, because I can see how that would play out,’ he said. ‘But it’s probably going to play out that was anyway….,’ he added ruefully.
‘Jack has a fabulous ability to receive the ball under pressure, to protect the ball, to dribble past people at slightly different speed to some of our other players, in the way he moves. And he draws fouls like the free kick he won for our second goal against Wales the other day.
‘So, I totally understand why, as a dribbler and someone who can take people out of the game, in that way I understand that comparison. For me, he does it in a different way to Gascoigne. Gascoigne was stronger upper body strength. Jack has incredible lower body strength and moves in a different manner. But I totally understand the comparison in terms of being able to beat people.’
As for accommodating Grealish, Southgate has been adept at finding different ways to play which extenuate England’s strengths and hide some of their weakness, notably at the World Cup with his 3-5-2 formation. And if it eventually showed its limitations, by then it had taken his team on a journey to a World Cup semi-final few had thought them capable of achieving. The real question is whether he likes Grealish, who only made his last squad after withdrawals, and wants to play him regularly.
But Gareth Southgate has been quick to play down comparisons between the maverick pair
The great English maverick debate stretches back at least as far as the 1970s, to Alan Hudson (2 caps), Stan Bowles (5 caps) and raged in the 90s when Matt Le Tissier (8 caps) was the cause celebre. Gascoigne, with his 57 caps, was nurtured bu his country, certainly by Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables and injury and his chaotic lifestyle prevented more rather than a puritanical desire to eliminate any cavalier traits.
Yet Gascoigne’s breakthrough game with England only came in April 1990 in a 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia at Wembley. Gascoigne was at his impish best that night but a glance at a contemporary match report indicates that he sure-fire thing for the World Cup squad. The eminent David Lacey wrote in The Guardian that he was capable of giving his manager, Robson, ‘more grimaces than grins’ but that ‘Gascoigne ‘s disciplined, decisive contribution … has pushed the Tottenham player towards the head of the queue for one of the spare midfield places in Italy.’ Eight weeks later he would be hailed one of the world’s greatest players.
Athleticism is of a different order these days and some of those players wouldn’t be close to Grealish’s level of fitness. He resembles them only in the swagger. And space will be found for him in the team, insists Southgate, if he continues to pick apart world-class defences, as he did Liverpool last Sunday.
Southgate must work out whether he can fit a maverick like Grealish in his England side
The great English maverick debate stretches back years and Grealish could be another name
‘I think there is room for different types of player in any system and in any way of playing,’ said Southgate. ‘One of the reason it’s been so long [to call him up] is that he was playing in the Championship until a couple of seasons ago. And I thought he had a very good spell in the middle of last season. I didn’t think he was quite as strong at the end of last season,’
As a former Aston Villa captain, he is acutely aware of the howls of protest that would come from Holte End regulars at this point, so he paused to acknowledge the point. ‘People will dispute that. But certainly he is playing well at the moment and that is what we should focus on.’
When Grealish didn’t make the last squad initially, a liked a tweet which drew attention to the fact that Southgate had said he would only consider him when he was playing regularly in the Premier League, which at that point he was. So, when he did finally arrive, Southgate took the time to spend time explaining what would be required.
‘I thought it was important to sit with him and explain how I saw his strengths and how I saw that fitting into the way we wanted to play. He has that enthusiasm to want to leave more about that. Having played with us he has gone back to his club and tried to work on the areas of the game. We try to go through a process, we bring players in, we get them to train with us, we get them into a game, we then give them the start. He has played a certain level of opponent and the next challenge will be the next tier of opposition as well.’
Grealish may get a chance to prove himself against superior opposition in Belgium on Sunday
Whether Wales would see themselves as a second tier opposition is a moot point. But no one could deny that today’s match is a step up.
In fact, it was Belgium who provided the counterpoint to the enthusiasm of that run to the World Cup semi-final. Fun though it was, being well beaten by Roberto Martinez’s team in the group stages and the third-fourth play-off was a sign that, when up against Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard, life is considerably more difficult.
The European Championships are less than eight months away. Progress will ultimately be measured by the success or otherwise there. But this evening’s clash will at least be a yardstick of where England are.
And if Grealish does get on, it will perhaps be an indication that he may be more important than Southgate initially thought. No shame in that. Sir Bobby would have said the same about Gascoigne.