ess than six minutes into England’s Euro 2020 campaign, in the dazzling Wembley sunshine, a bleach-blond Phil Foden stands up a scrambling Croatia defender, shimmies inside onto his left foot, curls the ball low past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, then watches in dismay as his shot ricochets back off the base of the post.
A couple of inches to the right, and perhaps that strike would have launched the summer of Phil, a breakthrough on the international stage for the most exciting English player of his generation, whose football genius as much as his barnet has ignited hopes of a Gazza Euro ’96-style campaign.
As it was, things never quite got going for the Manchester City star. He kept his place for the dismal draw with Scotland, then was left out of the third group game against Czech Republic for fear of picking up the yellow card that would have ruled him out of the last-16 against Germany.
As it panned out, he did not feature in that game either, nor the quarter-final thrashing of Ukraine and then only as an extra-time substitute in the semi-final against Denmark before missing the final altogether with a foot injury.
Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka instead excelled either side of Harry Kane, but it was Jack Grealish whose name, throughout the tournament, brought the loudest cheers and who emerged from the summer – despite comparatively small contributions – with cult hero status.
The debate over how best to use Grealish dogged Gareth Southgate throughout the Euros and has followed him ever since, but really it ought to end now.
With Kane and Sterling certainties, there is only one spot up for grabs in England’s attack — and the 27-year-old’s form at club level has paled in comparison to that of his younger City team-mate. Grealish himself yesterday namechecked the quality of Foden, alongside Kevin de Bruyne, as evidence of why it is so hard to nail down a regular place in Pep Guardiola’s side.
“I do feel like I can start playing a lot better,” Grealish said. “I probably haven’t been playing at the top of my game since I joined City at the start of last season, but I think I’ve shown glimpses of it.”
That there has been broader discussion of Grealish’s lack of form in recent weeks is perhaps helpful for Southgate, though it would hardly be a novel occurrence if those who have been critical of the forward’s City displays were to chastise the Three Lions boss for leaving him out of his XI to face Italy in Milan on Friday.
The majority of the former Villa star’s finest performances in an England shirt have come in cameos off the bench, including the game-changing one against Germany last summer, and with only matches against Hansi Flick’s side and, first, Italy, all that is left for Southgate to assess his options ahead of the World Cup.
Grealish yesterday sounded like a man coming to terms with the idea that a super-sub role may be his once more in Qatar. “Obviously, I’d love to play every game but it’s a squad, a big squad with top players all over, so if that was my role then that’s fine,” he said. “I’d love to be [starting] but I also know what an impact I can bring from the bench.”
For all the public clamour for Grealish and cack-handed dissection of every team Southgate names, it has gone underplayed just how rarely he has been able to call upon Foden, the most talented footballer the country has produced since Wayne Rooney.
Two years on from his debut, Foden has just 16 caps (England have played 33 matches in that time). Post-Euros, in particular, England’s only real rustlings of evolution came with the 22-year-old running games in a deeper role last autumn and then a major regression — England failing to score a goal from open play or win a game in four this summer — with Foden largely sidelined by Covid.
In the face of the vitriol after those matches, Southgate was reluctant to embark on a crusade of excuse-making, for all there were a number of worthy ones, but could not resist referencing Foden’s absences. Southgate knows the playmaker’s worth: he went into a major tournament banking on him, after all. If England are to succeed in Qatar, he surely must do it again.