International friendlies are the most stodgy of football fixtures, but England were positively refreshing against Wales last night. Nick Pope, Conor Coady, Michael Keane, Kalvin Phillips, Bukaya Sako, Danny Ings, Jack Grealish, Dominic Calvert-Lewin … these are all very likeable footballers, and not one plays for Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea or Man Utd. Perhaps that’s why they are so likeable, simply because they don’t project the swagger and entitlement that comes from playing for one of England’s big four clubs.
You’d much rather go for a beer with Pope than Jordan Pickford, I think. The same goes for Ings > Sterling, Coady > Maguire, or DCL > Kane, for example. If this sounds flippant, it’s not. As a fan, it’s important to like at least some of the players in the team you support.
Grealish, for example, has acted like a bit of a prick in the past, and it’s clear Gareth Southgate has been very wary of his character, but these days it’s almost impossible not to warm to the Aston Villa captain and his wondrous calves. Based on form alone, he walks into the England first XI anyway. You could argue the same for most of the players listed in the first paragraph.
Character is clearly an important attribute to Southgate. He doesn’t want arseholes in his squad, not if there are decent alternatives. Obviously he hasn’t relished having to discipline – deep breath – Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire, Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood, Ben Chilwell, Jadon Sancho and Tammy Abraham.
What can the England manager do? English footballers do dumb things all the time, and always have. Do they do dumb things more often than players from other nations? I don’t know. Probably, would be my guess. They’re more likely to be caught if they play for a big club or England, that’s clear.
After last night, the bottom line for England is that there is a growing pool of very good players to consider for Euro 2020, and players who come from a range of clubs. My one hope is that Southgate does not make the mistake so many ex-England managers have made – picking a team on status and reputation instead of form and character. If the likes of Pickford, Maguire, Henderson and Kane are not playing better than other candidates in the same position, don’t automatically select them for England’s opening match of the tournament. Alas, I fear that’s exactly what will happen next summer.