Broken football, the emptiness in Englishness, and what ‘Bring On Grealish’ really means
During last Friday’s match between England and Scotland at the European Football Championship – the tournament you’re supposed to refer to as ‘UEFA Euro 2020’ for some reason, even though it’s clearly 2021, a bizarre yet apparently successful effort to use the power of corporate sports to hold back calendar time – as the hotly-fancied elite youth academy products of England failed to make any particular headway against their much more modestly functional opponents, the ITV commentators voiced a near-continual refrain: Gareth Southgate, the England manager, Must Bring Grealish On Soon.
This Grealish – Jack Grealish, the cocky, headbanded Aston Villa playmaker, whose almost obscenely wiry physique gives everything he does the quality of a toy whose limbs are suspended from its torso by springs – is increasingly mentioned these days as perhaps the most naturally talented footballer now playing in the Premier League, one of those god-like footballing artistes who seems to exist on a different physical plane to those around them: a player who almost feels like he’s arrived from a bygone era, much more spontaneous, much less obviously coached and polished and conscientious than the nice young men who dominate England’s ranks around him.
And yet, Grealish had been left out of the starting line-up – against Croatia the previous weekend, and now here – with Gareth Southgate, whose energy these days is very much that of a man about to ask for a taste of the beetroot and hibiscus sour, erring on the side of caution and conservatism and a double defensive midfield pivot and another pint of the pale ale, actually, that’s very nice but it’s 8.5%, and – what’s that, £9 a half? I mean honestly, that’s silly money, who do they expect to drink this anyway? – after all.
Watching the game, seeing England’s very good, very nice, ultimately essentially toothless young men go through the motions against Scotland, never quite finding a way through, one began to hear the calls for Grealish To Come On, He’s Got To Bring Him On, He’s Just Got To, Oh Look He’s Warming Up Now, Double-Lacing His Boot, That’s A Sign: not so much asking Southgate to make a strategic tweak, a daring little shift that might open up the match a bit, but rather that he – or not just he, the universe, really – should bring about a much more fundamental transformation. Grealish is the sort of player who England have never historically ‘felt comfortable with’ – a player whose undeniable talents demand that they should be involved with the international side in some way, but whose existence stands in basic and eternal tension with the safety-first, ‘the most important thing is that everyone gives 100% for the side’-ist instincts of the sort of person who tends to get appointed England manager. The sort of player who one suspects that the Dutch, or the French, would manage to get a lot more out of. In short, the calls for Grealish To Come On were the demand that England Be Less English – that we cease failing, in the dully familiar ways that we were failing yet again, right this minute, and allow ourselves to be transformed into the sort of nation that is able to produce a football team that Wins.
Obviously, a football match between England and Scotland, facing each other at a major tournament for the first time in over two decades, in the current febrile post-lockdown atmosphere where every other day I seem to see a new viral video of a fight in a pub beer garden where someone gets knocked unconscious with a deckchair or has their ear bitten off entirely, seems like it ought to have had the potential to throw up all sorts of atavistic nationalistic resentments. But ultimately Friday’s game felt pretty muted: a largely uninspired affair from which the Scots felt happy to come away with a 0-0 draw. They won the bragging rights: but it’s England who are much more obviously set to qualify from the group – a draw, oddly enough, perhaps suiting even better than a win (a quirk of the tournament means that qualifying second from the group may yield a much easier draw in the next round than finishing first).
But this makes sense – because England’s national psychodrama no longer has all that much to do with Scotland, really. Opinion polls nowadays find a basic level of apathy and disinterest on behalf of English voters towards Scotland, who do not in general seem bothered by the prospect of Scotland becoming independent of the union either way. Our battle has turned inwards – and not just towards things like the ‘north-south divide’. ‘English nationalism’ is a much more prominent part of our political discourse, nowadays, than it ever was when I was growing up. And yet this is a strange sort of nationalism: a nationalism so spitefully exclusive that it seems primarily to be set against, well, other English people. For the English patriot, it seems, no other English person is ever quite English enough: not just if they’re the wrong colour, or ‘weren’t born here’, but if they’re too young, or too left-wing.
The problem, as Alex Niven points out in his book New Model Island (2019), is that English nationalism – as English nationalism – has always been essentially empty. For centuries, ‘England’ existed as the core of an Empire – Britain – with which it was often directly identified, even as the other sub-nationalities which constituted the United Kingdom retained some sort of separate existence. Since the end of Empire, the other UK sub-nations have been left with a national identity which both makes internal sense, and which they are able to take some sort of guilt-free pride in, distinct from the legacy of Empire – while ‘England’ has existed primarily as a repository for post-Imperial melancholy, collective guilt, and delusions of grandeur: an identity Niven associates firstly and most basically with a sense that everyone in the country is subject to a ‘historical curse.’
Just saying that you’re English – as the meme goes, is enough to see you arrested, and thrown in jail. To be someone who, in one’s own mind, loves the English nation, is to hate almost everyone else in it, and ‘what it has become’. And this feeds back the other way as well: if you are English (as I am), and one wants the best for one’s fellow English people (though not exclusively), one feels obliged to hate (on compassionate grounds, if nothing else) whatever Englishness has taken root inside them. (Of course, having expressed this, I am confident in receiving maybe three to four emails whining at me for ‘doing England down’ – I’m sure people who profess to love nations that feel at ease with themselves don’t do this).
Naturally, all this stuff ends up informing our experience of international football as well. England, in 2021, have a much more talented and well-balanced team than we’ve had for quite some time – the side overall looking much stronger than it did in 2018, with that unexpected run to the World Cup semi-finals. The majority of the players are obviously and irreducibly Elite – coached day-in day-out by some of the most successful, most progressive managers in the world: Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa, Jürgen Klopp. And they mostly seem, as I’ve said, like very nice young men as well: most obviously the iconic Marcus Rashford, who at times over the course of the past year has seemed to be juggling leading Manchester United’s front line with his new role, succeeding Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition. Collectively, these players represent a side of England that feels refreshingly young, confident, and diverse. And yet there remains a perennial discontent: this is England, and given this is England, one suspects there must be something, fundamentally, off.
In part this feeling is political: before the tournament, many of the most vociferous English patriots pledged to boo their own ostensibly beloved national team, after the players pledged to welcome kick-off by taking the knee. People like me, meanwhile, are always confronted with the question of whether we should ‘really’ be supporting England, as opposed to finding a nation that is less directly implicated in historical atrocities, or less obviously psychologically broken (I personally don’t think this sort of thing falls within the jurisdiction of the moral law – I also don’t think that I can help it).
But the feeling is also footballing. After a good decade or so of disappointing showings and early exits, Southgate more than exceeded expectations in 2018 – and yet, his plan for this tournament appears to involve playing as many (a) right-backs and (b) defensive midfielders as possible. As we failed to find a way past Scotland, one felt uncanny thinking of bygone England sides, blessed with much less talent, struggling in the opening stages of ultimately abortive tournaments to put anything past the likes of Slovakia, or Costa Rica. Even when we’re good, we seem to lack something: the sort of basic confidence, or inspiration, that other international teams like Germany or Italy can typically rely on, or at least never seem to misplace for all that long.
This is the reason why ‘Three Lions’, with apologies to New Order, is the greatest English football song, because it manages to capture exactly this feeling: the ‘thirty years of hurt’ that are now more than fifty; the longing that football ‘come home’ – in short that the English curse – the last thing, perhaps, which genuinely unites us – finally be lifted.
But perhaps we are simply Too English, for this paradise. Anyone who plays for England is, after all, English almost by definition – even if, like Grealish, they were also eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, with about 1/3 of Friday’s game still to go, Southgate did throw Grealish on. But then something strange happened: the commentators continued to demand that he appear.
Grealish was on the pitch, yes, this was obvious to anyone – not least, because the Scottish players kept getting frustrated and wrestling him to the ground. But he clearly wasn’t about to change the course of the game by himself – and so Grealish was not having the desired, Grealishing effect on his team. Grealish had to be played more centrally, the commentators switched to saying – he had to be allowed to be more Grealish. Grealish was here, yes, but only in diminished form: what we really needed was the real Grealish; a double helping, somehow, of Grealish in his Grealishness.
Perhaps the truth was simply too much for our poor pundits to handle: that this is still England, and will remain England, even when the Englishness has been turned down to the lowest possible setting. In this denial, I sensed was housed a fear: that there may never come a Grealish powerful enough to ride out to the rescue, and turn us into something different.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and author of Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster (2021, Repeater).