I’ve always quite liked the banner that adorns the Colin Bell stand at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.

In white letters on a navy blue background are the words: ‘We’re Not Really Here’.

It popped into my head last week when England manager Gareth Southgate unveiled his squad for Euro 2024, and, presumably for a laugh, left off the name of Jack Grealish.

The collective media rolled their eyes in faux surprise.  ‘Good one Gareth, such a joker, have you thought of stand-up, you’ve got the waistcoat for it.  Now where’s the real list, Gareth… Gareth!??'

It’s said that Manchester City’s iconic anthem is the result of the type of gallows humour developed by fans during the club’s unfathomable descent to League Two, a self-deprecating nod to the impossible nightmare, made possible.

And so to Grealish.  On the one hand his performances last season weren’t spectacular, and he only scored three goals.  On the other hand, he only scored five goals the season before that as City won the Super Cup and the Club World Cup to go with the treble.  But, where Grealish is concerned, goals aren't really his raison d’etre.

To some, it could appear as if Grealish is a luxury, coasting through matches and rarely demonstrating the wonderful mazy dribbles that caught the eye during his years with Aston Villa.  But that would be a naive assessment.

The Pep Guardiola handbook of advanced management dictates that most of his players will be asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the team at some point.  Pep's assault on football tactics meant that last season it was the turn of Jack Grealish.  A record fourth Premier League title followed.

Listening to Kyle Walker on BBC Sounds last week, I was struck by the Manchester City full back’s analysis of Grealish.  “I Would prefer to play against Vinicius Jnr.  Jack attracts more players, which frees up other players.  He holds onto the ball for a few seconds longer, everyone gets attracted to the ball and, all of a sudden, somebody else is free.  He lifts his head and finds that player.”

Pep deploys Grealish as a distraction, a disguise, a diversion… for all intents and purposes, he’s not really there.

When England are struggling to break teams down, Grealish is the type of player that can unpick the lock with his ability to free up space for others.  His stats may be unremarkable – at least to the uninitiated – but that’s because his game isn't based on anything as crude as stats.  His game is the pass before the pass, the run before the run, the movement before the movement.  It is a game built on stealth and sleight of hand, crafted by the genius of Pep Guardiola.

Southgate may have decided that he isn’t going to play possession based football, preferring instead to counter attack his way to glory.  And that’s fine, except that Grealish is one of the best dribblers in Europe when asked to play that way.

And then there are the kind of intangibles that keep radio phone-in debates spinning like a ballerina on a Ferris wheel.  He’s great in the changing room, everybody likes him, he lifts the place and all those around him.

And what about the trophies?  Seven major honours in the last three seasons.  He knows what it’s like to be in those big games, fighting it out against the best.  He’s lost finals too, once in the EFL Cup, twice in the FA Cup, and of course the big one two years ago with England.  But, like those domestic finals, the memory of defeat to Italy at Wembley is surely a battle scar that makes him stronger, more determined.  Isn’t this the ideal type of invaluable experience that for so long England squads were accused of lacking?

Nobody has Southgate down as one of the game's great tacticians.  Nations of equal and sometimes inferior ability routinely find England out at the business end of tournaments, but I refuse to subscribe to any school of thought that says our chances are greatly improved by removing any of our better and more experienced players from the equation.

Even so, England will play as England always play.  No doubt there will be times when they will inspire us, they’ll swashbuckle, they’ll surprise us, they’ll raise our hopes and they’ll let us down.

The fallout will be littered with the usual questions of how and why.  But without one of our best players, we’ll need to ask whether we were ever really there at all.


Talking of Euro 2024, it’s competition time at The Dave Kitson Academy!

For a chance to win a free place for your child on our group sessions at Move HQ in Winnersh, email mark@davekitsonacademy.co.uk with your score prediction for England’s opening Euro 2024 group game against Serbia on June 16.

If you correctly predict the score, your child will win a free place on one of my weekly group sessions.