The chants at Wembley for Jack Grealish to be brought on started not long after half-time. But England’s understated manager Gareth Southgate took no notice, as he has ignored the invariably unhelpful suggestions made by both fans and the media throughout Euro 2020.
When Grealish did come on for a tiring Bukayo Saka midway through the second half and with the game breaking open, it was the perfect time for his mercurial talent to shine. The first time he got on the ball, he was immediately converged on by two Denmark defenders and brought down. The free kick he won was cheered like a goal by fans who demanded to see him play.
Grealish’s arrival led to Raheem Sterling switching flanks to the right wing. It was this tactical move by Gareth Southgate, rather than the introduction of the Aston Villa captain, that won England this semi-final against Denmark and therefore the right to face Italy on Sunday night.
Sterling had been a menace on the left but switching wings gave him even more momentum. Out of form and benched by Manchester City more often than not at the end of the domestic season, his place in the England XI was widely thought to be strongly in doubt for Euro 2020.
Grealish was seen by many as the coming man and Phil Foden had replaced Sterling for City to brilliant effect. Add in the effervescent, versatile Saka plus Marcus Rashford – the nation’s pandemic-era hero yet also out of form and carrying an injury that will require an operation – and the left wing spot had by far the most competition for places in England’s lopsided squad of 26.
But Gareth Southgate trusts his senior players and Sterling, a veteran of 67 international caps at the age of 26, is definitely part of that leadership group along with the likes of Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson and the two Harrys, Kane and Maguire.
There were groans when Sterling started against Croatia over Grealish – he then scored the winner. After a poor performance against Scotland, when the whole team was off the boil in a scrappy affair, he did it again against Czech Republic to ensure England topped the group. After suggestions finishing second might lead to a clearer path, winning Group D actually put England in the softer half of the draw, avoiding most of the tournament’s heavyweight contenders.
Sterling had scored England’s only group goals yet there were still calls for Grealish to replace him. Southgate stuck with his man and Sterling struck again to get England on their way in the last-16 against old rivals Germany. And despite Kane grabbing a brace and the headlines against Ukraine, Sterling was again England’s best player in a complete team performance.
He was the matchwinner against Denmark too. Sterling never stopped making cute runs behind the Danish defence and eventually he got round the back and drew a foul in the box. As harsh as it seemed, there was no doubt Sterling was clipped as he veered at goal. Kane needed two goes to convert the penalty for his fourth goal of Euro 2020 but England were on their way.
Grealish has had an interesting tournament. He has dazzled sporadically, setting up Sterling for and Kane for headers against the Czechs and Germans respectively, but is yet to light up Euro 2020 in the way his fan club expected. In truth, he looks like a player still finding form and fitness after missing a large chunk of the second half of the Premier League season due to injury.
Tellingly, with England in front and heading into the last 15 minutes of extra time, Gareth Southgate took Grealish off. His desire to take risks on the ball was simply not what England needed when there was enough space on the vast green grass of Wembley to recycle possession safely.
Kieran Trippier came on for Grealish and he helped England weather a brief Denmark rally then combined professionally with Kyle Walker on the right to see the game out in some style. The reaction in the stands to Grealish going off had been one of bafflement. People assumed he had picked up an injury and could not continue.
But there was a more complex explanation for the substitute being substituted. Southgate clearly does not trust Grealish in high pressure situations. And, after leading England to their first major final in 55 years, having previously reached the World Cup and Nations League semi-finals in a clear progression for his squad, his judgment can no longer be questioned.
Grealish is not even in contention to start the final, with Sterling one of the first names on the team sheet. Sterling’s international form for two years has been outstanding and Gareth Southgate has not forgotten – his memory is not as short as some supporters. Sterling also runs himself into the ground in a way Grealish perhaps does not.
Fans always have their favourites and Grealish has been the golden boy for some time, even though his dominant Villa form has not yet been replicated regularly in England colours. And it has to be said that some sections of the England support have just never fully taken to Sterling despite his 17 international goals. The tabloid media’s treatment of Sterling over the years has been appalling too, with the player himself highlighting he believes this is due to racism.
For a long time, the strength of Southgate’s convictions was in doubt. People openly wondered if he was “too nice” to thrive in the cut-throat world of football management. His actions in hooking Grealish at Wembley showed that theory to be nonsense. The decisions of Gareth Southgate have been questioned throughout Euro 2020, but every major call he has made has been proved right.
“Southgate, you’re the one” sang gleeful England fans at Wembley after the Three Lions’ finest night at the stadium. Perhaps for the final, fans will trust his selections – and use of Grealish.
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