With 25 minutes gone at Wembley Stadium, and with England and Ireland still goalless, there was a lovely moment of pure, uncut Jack Grealish.
England had taken time to develop an attack on the right as Ireland fell into a low white-shirted block. Grealish, switching flanks, had been heavily involved, working hard to find the right angle with Reece James and Harry Winks.
Finally James made a clever run inside. At which point Grealish did something delicious, rolling the ball back with the sole of his boot, waiting a beat, then sliding the pass through a narrow sliver of green to find his man.
The cross was blocked. But it was an interesting moment for other reasons. England have plenty of high grade attackers, but their moments of incision tend to arrive at speed. Often they can stagnate when the play becomes slow. Here an England attack showed patience, switched tempo and still found an opening. Not the biggest change of gear. But it felt like a note of difference.
Grealish wasn’t England’s most eye-catching attacker in a first half that saw them go 2-0 up and at times toy with an outmatched Irish midfield. That was Jadon Sancho, who always seemed to have a portable square of green space around him, and who might have scored a hat-trick.
Sancho, like Grealish, is a one-off, a dribbler who doesn’t really dribble, but manipulates the ball with his own subtle, homemade range of movements. But this was always going to be Grealish’s game one way or another.
Sport likes to throw up these operatic storylines. Only the most shamelessly schmaltzy script writer would insist that Grealish’s second start for England should come at Wembley against Ireland. From this angle the absence of a crowd was, for the first time, a minor blessing.
Grealish played on the left of England’s attack from the start, his club position. His first act was to fall over under no real pressure. His second was to shoulder Cyrus Christie out of the way and hare in on goal before sliding a pass just behind Sancho. Grealish’s physical power – the prodigious calves, the impressive rump – is a big part of his game, the ability to bump an opponent as well as feint and shimmy.
It is a part of his appealing oddity as a footballer too. Top level players tend to have an identikit lithe silhouette. Grealish moves about the pitch like a man taking a jog on the beach. Even his kit seems to be cut to a more casual shape.
Twice around the 20 minute mark he ferreted forward, once pinging a cross that narrowly missed the blue shirts. He also had a passive role in England’s opening goal. As a corner dropped outside the penalty area Grealish’s run and shout for the ball helped engineer a pocket of space.
From there Winks measured a cross to the back post. Even as Harry Maguire’s header hit the back of the net Winks could be seen turning to mollify Grealish, saluting the run, pointing to the end result.
England went 2-0 up on the half hour. Sancho finished beautifully, invited to have a crack by a limp defensive turn from Jeff Hendrick, who presumably doesn’t watch the Bundesliga much. It was Grealish’s pass to assist the goal, a simple one, but the right choice at the right time.
There were bum notes and stubbed toes too, as there always will be with an attacker who takes so many chances. Three times Grealish found excellent space but missed his final pass. Perhaps in a game of higher quality this will translate into wastefulness. But this is the other good thing about Grealish. Aged 25, it still isn’t clear what his ceiling is, or how far he can reach.
By half-time Grealish had completed 22 of his 24 passes, and had worked relentlessly for the team. Whatever his ultimate fate there was a pleasure in watching him here, and a sense of playfulness in the interchanges with this young attacking unit.
At times in the opening weeks of the season it has seemed a little absurd Grealish has had to wait so long to be granted a starting senior cap. This season he has added drive, the will to go for the throat.
There is an argument this bold version of Grealish was the player missing in Moscow as England were overrun by Croatia in midfield; and then again a year later as the Netherlands preyed on a basic inability to retain control of the ball.But there is also a flood of options in this squad now. Grealish was replaced by Phil Foden after an hour here, another midfielder of real craft.
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The real question lies with Gareth Southgate, whose time with England has followed a fascinating parabola. His first two years involved trying to make an effective, resilient team out of some standard issue parts.
For the last two he has been charged with something else, making a progressive team out of a fine seam of attacking talent, and living up to expectations rather than elevating them. It may have been a lukewarm friendly against poor opposition, but this still felt like a small step forwards.