Finding Gazza – Jack Grealish and English Football’s Great Chase

Art by Charbak Dipta

First came Joe Cole. Then there was Wayne Rooney. Then Jack Wilshire. Soon after, Ravel Morrison. Next Ross Barley. Most recently Dele Ali, and now Jack Grealish. These current or former boy marvels of English soccer all share the burdensome honor of being compared to the mercurial Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne at some point in their careers. So far only Rooney has built a resume worthy of distinction beyond the dubious recognition as the “new Gazza” whom he has certainly surpassed both in terms of longevity and awards. But as his nickname (“Wazza”) suggests, even Rooney is indelibly linked to Gascoigne.

Perhaps this is only natural. With the exception of the most recent World Cup, England’s most respectable finishes in international competitions since 1966 have come when Gascoigne was a central figure. First, in Italia ’90 where he was undoubtedly the revelation of the tournament – a driving, vibrant force in an otherwise dour and defensive World Cup. And then in the 1996 European Cup when, despite several injuries and being six years older, he managed to score a goal that combined the cheekiness and power of a well administered bolo punch. Narrow defeats in the semifinals in both those tournaments (to Germany on penalties, as ever) convinced the British public that England could win international tournament well before David Beckham and the “Golden Generation” briefly convinced them that they should win one.

More than a brilliant footballer, Gascoigne has become a cultural totem for the English public to whom he endeared himself with his homely charisma and earthy sense of humor. A Falstaff in soccer boots, he continues to signify the eternal promise of playing beautifully, winning, and having fun doing so. Now, any creative midfielder of English stock who blends mettle and flair with a bit of ladish insolence is deemed to be the second coming. 

At its most benign, the English fixation on finding its new Gazza seems to be an innocuous declaration of hope that some wunderkind can light up a tournament and briefly unite the nation. At worst, it is a symptom of a peculiar and pathological longing for a talisman to redeem the nation. Indeed, even though the collective English football psyche has tended towards the brash and self-aggrandizing—note the perpetual need to declare the Premier League the toughest if not best in the world—there is an underlying neurosis is born of an all-too-self-aware decline since 1966. In this respect, the impulse to hail the coming of a new Gazza comes across less as an innocuous player comparison and more an interpellation of a national soccer savior. In practical terms, this has translated into a kind of collective (though not universal) mania to push young English hopefuls into the spotlight too soon, only for them to wither on the vine before ripeness.  

While hardly a fledgling at 25, the current collective calls to make Jack Grealish the centerpiece of the English national side have that familiar feeling of new Gazza mania. To be fair, a Grealish-led England is a seductive prospect. With his Peaky Blinders-inspired coif and socks rolled down to expose his famously ample calves, Jack plays with the devil-may-care insouciance of a natural. He’s a player who plays on his toes. When so much of modern football is about eliminating mistakes – playing tight, playing on your heels – Grealish leans in. He knows the simple secret that you not only need the ball to make things happen; you need to want the ball. The perennial dilemma with playing with a pure No 10 like Grealish, however, is fitting them into a system or formation that demands collective pressing. That is, how do they respond when they don’t have the ball? 

Enter the 21-year-old Mason Mount, who was preferred to Grealish in the most recent UEFA Nations League matches against Belgium and Denmark. Gareth Southgate’s decision seems justified as Mount played well and scored the winning goal against the world number one Belgians and was one of the few bright spots in their 1-0 loss against the Danes. It was his off the ball work and quick decision-making earned him high marks by his coach and the media that view Mount as a decidedly less exciting but more modern attacking midfielder who harries and presses well without the ball. 

Less a new Gazza, Mount represents something relatively novel in the English game: a gegenpressing attacking midfielder who is intelligent enough to compliment whichever system in which he plays. With the ball Mount is an attacking terrier who frequently forces defenders into mistakes and isn’t afraid to shoot. Without it, he hunts the ball and gets stuck in with gusto. While Grealish is certainly the popular option as first choice attacking midfielder, as a two-way player who combines skill and reliability, Mount remains the coach’s go-to guy.

Adam Lallana was saddled with a similar ambivalence as he emerged as the most important attacking midfielder going into Euro 2016. Now in the twilight of his career at Brighton, it seems odd to single out Lallana as a model for national team player development. Something of a late bloomer and thus not precociously gifted enough to qualify as one of England’s new Gascoignes, Lallana had gently, softly, almost unremarkably, come to best represent the type of player English football has long needed to be competitive at international tournaments: skillful, tireless, tactically intelligent, and, most notably, utterly coachable in multiple systems. 

Lallana’s paternal grandfather is Spanish and his playing style is in many ways in the Iberian mold. He’s a silky dribbler, tidy passer, and balletic when turning into space. Indeed, he’s been compared to Andres Iniesta. But comparisons to the Spaniard are a bit strained, as Lallana is also very much a product of his British pedigree. Where Iniesta is gliding, brainy-type schemer with little friction to his game, Lallana lopes about the field like a hyperactive faun lunging into tackles to start attacks. Early in his Liverpool tenure, Jurgen Klopp made him a regular in midfield where he unquestionably became one of the Red’s most important players, exploiting Lallana’s energy and smarts to great effect in their counter-pressing, high octane attack. Indeed, like Mount’s close relationship with Frank Lampard, Lallana’s kinship with Klopp has singled him out for gentle ribbing as a bit of a teacher’s pet. 

And yet there are still some corners of the British media that view multidimensional footballers like Mount and Lallana with a dubious eye. Despite solid performances from him in England’s otherwise disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, the Guardian’s Gregg Bakowski criticized Lallana for his positional dexterity: “Perhaps he’s not helped by the shades of grey over what his best position is. Is he a midfielder or an attacker?…it is not easy to say what his one outstanding attribute is. Maybe he is too complicated a footballer, not simplistic enough, to be a truly effective England player.” 

At first gloss, these are baffling sentiments from journalist, no less one who writes for the Guardian. Is this not what English fans and pundits have pined for? A consistently competent and skillful playmaker who doesn’t shrink from a fight and who can cope with the intricacies and shifting roles of modern football. But of course there is a cultural valence to opinions such as these, which Bakowski’s Guardian colleague Jonathan Liew neatly sums up with respect to the Grealish vs. Mount debate: “Grealish is the man for the team England aspire to be; Mount is the man for the team they have now. He runs and runs, he does his job, he chips in with goals and assists, and yet somehow the populist appeal of a Grealish will always be beyond him. It’s hardly his fault, of course. But in this febrile new normal, in a land crying out for folk heroes, it’s something he’s going to have to get used to.”

Indeed, England is a rather old nation with enduring invented traditions like the monarchy, warm beer, and Bovril, Britons tend to recall the past as simpler more glorious times. There, the present is imperfect –a reminder of decline from an imperial past, while the future is only worth a damn insofar as it can be made to seem redolent of the past. In soccer culture this can manifest itself as an infatuation with former heroes to the detriment of appreciating contemporary players on their own terms. Forever chasing Gazza when football has, in many ways, moved on.

Sam Fayyaz

Sam Fayyaz studied political science and occasionally writes about soccer when he’s not thinking about it. His articles have appeared in the Run of Play, When Saturday Comes, and the Classical. He lives in New Jersey and works in NYC.