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With 67 minutes gone at Wembley, with the game starting to sag a little and stretch towards its slightly fretful end notes, Jack Grealish could be seen walking slowly, steeped in a sudden fug of melancholy, towards the far touchline. It was a walk with a touch of theatre, a degree of flounce.
It would be wrong to read too much into it. Grealish flounces when he’s happy. He had, earlier, flounced all over the opening 20 minutes of this game, creating the opening goal and, together with the hugely impressive Bukayo Saka, reworking not just the trajectory, but the basic sense of joy and possibilities around this rather gaunt and mannered England team.
And now he was done, hooked, given the thanks-that-will-do. Ahead of him Raheem Sterling, scorer now of all two (count ’em) of England’s goals at these Euros could be seen trotting off happily. Grealish didn’t want to go. He knew his audience too, turning sadly to applaud the hard core, the Jack ultras in that end.
It was a fascinating little moment in itself. There are different kinds of fearless. Grealish was excellent for 40 minutes – and utterly unafraid, as he always is. But he had started to fade a little.
It is Southgate’s strength that he only sees the game in front of him.But is to be hoped that he also remembers the edge in those opening exchanges, when the game was won.
Wembley was a lovely sight at kick-off, a thick shaft of chilly June sun illuminating the top tier, the grass a deep sallow lime green. And really this was set up for Grealish, who started as a roving No 10 in a 4-2-3-1. No tethering to the left flank. Take the ball. Make the game up. Run as you like. Get close to Harry (please, please do something with Harry).
Grealish looked coiled and pepped and ready. He walks like a star, a little prim, chest puffed, bravura calves glistening in the dusk. And at times early on there were glimpses of giddy, fun, intoxicating Jack-ball, those moments where the game just seems to be falling into shape around him. There was a huge roar the first time he took the ball on the left and grooved upfield. There is something illusory about the idea of Grealish as some kind of saviour, a stifled genius. In reality he is a good player yet to reach his own limits, to find what he might be capable of.
But what a change to have that buzz, that feeling of sudden focus, a quickening in the crowd. And out of this England scored an actual goal from open play, a goal made by players moving and passing, riffing off each other.
First Saka made a run behind the Czech defence, dragging the red shirts back towards goal. He picked up possession in that broken, muddled inside-right channel.
The cross was deep, but Grealish nodded it up then brought it down out of the Wembley air as day seemed to stop around him. His cross was a perfect, dipping, curving thing, missing the defender and finding the head of Sterling.
As the net rippled there were seven Czech players and five white shirts crammed in a kind of panic-raft around the six-yard box. England had finally created some mischief, some tremors, some displaced energy. The front four made the goal. Short passes made the goal. Interchanging positions made the goal. Jack’s voodoo on the ball made the goal.
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Mainly, it felt like fun, a brainstorm, a good idea, another world of human interaction from the pallid, fearful pattern-football of the Scotland game.
What a difference it made, in that period, having a player on the pitch who really did just seem to want the ball. Grealish makes you want to talk like this, in gruff, terse cliches. He wants the ball. He loves the ball. He desires the ball. But he also respects the ball. He treats it well. He’s considerate, gallant, in touch with the ball’s feelings.
And for a while England were fluent, a mobile, revolving presence. Not lethal or deadly but a team playing intelligently conceived football. At one point Grealish grabbed a high ball out of the air with his left foot on the run, releasing it to Kane in the next stride, a thrilling little moment of balletic dexterity.
He lingered close to Kane, feeding him passes, dinks, nudges, like a handsome young valet. This has been a noticeable absence in recent England games – magnetism, shared energy, vibes, on-field flirtations.
And that really was the best part of this game, which shrunk from the 40-minute mark like a slowly deflating ballon. England had four shots on target in the first half, twice as many in the two preceding group games combined. They passed more to each other, looked to make some kind of conversation out of this series of collisions.
They will now move on from the slightly wretched Group D, and look forward to a first genuine moment of edge, 15 months into this mob-handed tournament. Perhaps Southgate will remember only the controlled deceleration of the second half, will shuffle his pack again.
But England did need something extra here, and they found it in those opening surges. There are different kinds of ruthlessness. Grealish was a cutting edge as well as a source of brief illumination at Wembley. It’s not the only story, or the answer to anything much. But England are better, more run, more fraught with possibilities with him in the team.