England’s past has long represented a shadow. Underachievement can generate unflattering comparisons as well as a sense of nostalgia for better times. If part of Gareth Southgate’s success in the 2018 World Cup was to turn much of that on its head and take a less talented England team farther than most of their predecessors, the search for reference points has nonetheless continued.
“I would love to be like Gazza,” said the Aston Villa captain. A former Villa skipper was less keen for them to be discussed in the same breath. It was not a criticism.
“Jack had an excellent performance,” said Southgate. And yet a teammate of Gascoigne in the side that reached the semi-finals of Euro ’96 added a caveat.
“I am very conscious that I don’t want to be dampening the enthusiasm for Jack,” he said. “When you are talking about Gascoigne, there was not a player in English history that was at that level, in my opinion. I played with [Paul] Scholes, [Wayne] Rooney, [Steven] Gerrard and [David] Beckham who were phenomenal but I just feel Gascoigne is so unique it is a bit like talking about Bobby Moore. You shouldn’t burden young players by tagging them and comparing them with anyone.”
The more immediate assessment of Grealish comes against his peers. The verdict will come on the teamsheet. Southgate may have been slow to select Grealish but that was in part because of the competition for places on the left and, even in the absence of the injured Raheem Sterling, there are two major rivals for his place against Belgium. Grealish flourished in what was essentially a second-string side on Thursday. Southgate can now recall some of his regulars. Now options include Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, who have been in the headlines for very different reasons.
The Borussia Dortmund winger was unavailable for the Wales game after he, Ben Chilwell and Tammy Abraham breached Covid-19 regulations about gatherings of more than six people to attend a surprise birthday party for the Chelsea forward.
Chilwell is out again, but Sancho and Abraham are back in contention.
“That situation is done and we move forward,” said Southgate.
“It is an amazing achievement, wonderful for him and his family but he didn’t start this project to get the recognition,” Southgate said. “He started it because he has been affected by it and cared passionately.
"For someone his age to make the difference he has is phenomenal. You can only marvel at what he has achieved and the difference he has made.”
If Rashford is a role model off the field, Belgium provide one on it. Roberto Martinez’s team have been ranked first in the world for two years. They beat England twice in the World Cup, albeit in a group game when Southgate rotated his squad and the third-place match.
Belgium are the early frontrunners in their Nations League pool, beating Denmark 2-0 and Iceland 5-1. England have two fewer points and six fewer goals so far, being fortunate to beat Iceland 1-0 and stuttering in a stalemate in Copenhagen. They will surely have to take at least four points against Belgium to reach a second successive Nations League semi-final.
England v Wales ratings
“Belgium have had an amazing crop [of players] in the last 10 years,” said Southgate. It is all the more admirable from a country of 11 million people. They may have to demonstrate their strength in depth in the absence of the injured Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, but in Romelu Lukaku they have a striker who scored 41 goals in four years of international football before it was interrupted.
“He is fantastic striker, one of the best in the world,” said Eric Dier, who may be charged with stopping the Inter forward.
Southgate has reverted to the back three he used in the 2018 World Cup for England’s last two games and is expected to retain that shape.
Dier, a midfielder then, has been relocated in the defence but has fond memories of Russia.
He scored the winning penalty in the last-16 shootout against Colombia. It almost made him a national hero, one interviewer suggested.
“Almost?” Southgate said with a smile. “What more does he have to do?”
From Gascoigne to Rashford, English football has provided different sorts of national heroes. But, Southgate would argue, each in his own way.