Grealish, England's wildcard, can grip the nation like Gascoigne at Euro 1996 (2024)

Give me a Grealish. Half fit, almost fit, fully fit (yes, please!) Just give me a Grealish.

Upon entering any major tournament, a manager will look through his squad and identify a core group of players to form the key components of the side. The captain, of course, has to be right. It always helps if the spine is strong and if there is a goalscorer in fine form too.

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Yet every manager wants a game-changer; a player he knows can turn it on and create something out of nothing when the rest of those around him are struggling. A super-sub perhaps. A wildcard. A Grealish…

In Gareth Southgate’s official 26-man England squad is, of course, now Jack Grealish. He has been handed the No.7 shirt.

The Aston Villa attacker has lit up the recent training camp pictures with his broad smile. He looks the part in England attire, proudly pumping the Three Lions out from his chest. He has also got the talent to grip a nation in the way Paul Gascoigne so famously did all those years ago at Euro 1996.

To be preparing for the tournament alongside the rest of England’s elite is a dream come true for Grealish. Despite the England-Ireland tug of war that was resolved in 2015 when Grealish pledged his allegiance to the country he was born in — rather than whom he represented at youth level — there has always been a love for the national team. At the age of six, he jumped for joy as David Beckham curled in thatfree kick against Greece while watching the match in his family home in Solihull. He collected the replica kits, watched his Villa heroes represent England and spent the summer of 2017 with the under-21s, albeit as an unused substitute in their European Championship squad.

This, however, is his real big chance to shine. This is his moment.

Speaking today after his call-up, he said: “Gareth briefed us before training, buzzing I was. My mum (was the first person I told). I rang her when I found out I had the No 7 shirt. I rang my mum and my dad, they were together. I was actually shocked myself — No 7 at a major tournament for England. I got told on a WhatsApp text. I got goosebumps.”

Grealish, England's wildcard, can grip the nation like Gascoigne at Euro 1996 (1)

Grealish in good spirits at England’s Euro 2020 training camp in Middlesbrough (Photo: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Southgate listened carefully to the attacker when he explained his shin injury was behind him. The former Villa captain wanted assurances his squad would not be hamstrung by a player with a niggle in an area where competition is rife. Yet Grealish, fresh from extra training sessions at Bodymoor Heath and with enough rest since the final game of the season, did enough to get in. He has always been a popular figure around the camp but these last few days he has again demonstrated his quality with the ball at his feet. Southgate is excited to be working with such an array of attacking talent.

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Despite all of his confidence and exuberance, preparation has been far from ideal for the attacker. He would have liked more than two starts for Villa at the back end of the season, having missed 12 through injury, to help build momentum and cement a starting berth.

With so much happening elsewhere, it’s easy to forget just how impressive he had been before sustaining a shin injury in February.

Grealish is the kind of player who needs to be watched in the flesh before his talent can be truly appreciated. Yet for all his off-the-cuff, expressive play, he was consistently turning in outstanding performances for Villa.

Grealish would set the tempo. He was the leading attacking force, he would create the most chances, he would typically assist or score. He continued to enhance his growing reputation, producing top-class displays week-in, week-out. He was hitting levels that few English players get close to and was matching Bruno Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne. Mason Mount would start to overtake him towards the end of the season, but that was only because Grealish was injured.

What we won’t know until the tournament starts, however, is whether Grealish can get back to that scintillating form.

Although Villa beat Tottenham and Chelsea in the two games Grealish started in May, there was some rustiness. Perhaps he was apprehensive with the Euros just around the corner. If that was the case, then we’re likely to see more from him in the warm-up games against Austria and Romania. Those outings will certainly help build confidence before the opener against Croatia on June 13.

There remains a real clamour for Grealish from England supporters — even with the setback that kept him out between February and May. It isn’t at the level of Beckham in 2002 when a picture of his injured foot appeared on the front of national newspapers, or even Wayne Rooney in 2006 when he also suffered a setback before the tournament. But the hype is real. Supporters went crazy when Grealish impressed against Belgium in his only 90-minute senior international outing to date.

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For a player who has only played 317 minutes for his country, there’s a lot of love and excitement. Southgate knows about his qualities too. He wouldn’t have picked him otherwise.

Now it’s the manager’s job to unlock his full potential. Grealish isn’t in this squad to make up the numbers. He’s there to make a real difference.

There’s also a burning desire to make amends for the frustrating Under-21 European Championship four years ago that resulted in a semi-final defeat to Germany on penalties. Watching that defeat from the bench hit him hard, especially as he was one of only two players who had scored every penalty in training (England practised spot kicks every day during the tournament in preparation for such an outcome).

That he is the only attacking player from that under-21s squad now in the senior Euros squad shows his ability to transform a negative into a positive.

He wants this opportunity badly. It’s now up to him to grasp it.

(Top photo: Nick Potts – Pool/Getty Images)

Grealish, England's wildcard, can grip the nation like Gascoigne at Euro 1996 (2)Grealish, England's wildcard, can grip the nation like Gascoigne at Euro 1996 (3)

Gregg Evans is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Aston Villa FC. Previously he spent over a decade at the Birmingham Mail covering West Midlands football. His time with Villa includes six managers, three ownership groups, an FA Cup Final, the fatal relegation campaign and an epic return to the Premier League. Follow Gregg on Twitter @greggevans40

Grealish, England's wildcard, can grip the nation like Gascoigne at Euro 1996 (2024)
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