A look at Gareth Southgate’s final 24 hours before his biggest call as England manager

Gareth Southgate has picked perhaps his boldest tournament squad as England manager – Getty Images/Richard Pelham

There were many close calls for Gareth Southgate in the last 24 hours as he reduced one of England’s most talented generations of players to 26 for this month’s European Championship, although none left his players as shocked as the omission of Jack Grealish.

The £100million Manchester City man didn’t see it coming when he threw himself into training on Thursday morning. Unbeknownst to Grealish, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland were awaiting a critical assessment of Newcastle United winger Anthony Gordon’s injury, which was already at the forefront of the England manager’s plans. When Gordon was deemed fit, it was up to Southgate to break the bad news to Grealish.

In the aftermath, England players gathered in Grealish’s room. There was a shock when a player who many had simply assumed was certain to get a place in the squad went on holiday in June. James Maddison’s omission the previous evening had been less of a surprise, but as news of Grealish spread, a senior player approached Southgate. It was a conversational conversation about the decision and why it was made, but it showed how no one saw it coming.

Grealish was a popular, talented figure among his peers and his form at Aston Villa three years earlier saw him included in the Euro 2020 squad. During the 2022 World Cup finals, he was a regular substitute in every match. But with his form at City declining and Pep Guardiola leaving him out of the big games, other English talents have made a strong case for inclusion.

When asked how much that had played a role in his thinking, Southgate reflected on his answer. “I don’t think today would be a good day to talk about the bigger picture,” he said. “I don’t think that would be fair. I just had a very difficult conversation with a guy [Grealish] who is devastated. I think his world is big as a child.’

Jack Grealish alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold and Anthony Gordon before training in EnglandJack Grealish alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold and Anthony Gordon before England training

Grealish didn’t know the decision was coming when he went out to train on Thursday – Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

The erratic Grealish, with a style all his own, is just the latest to be left out of a Southgate squad that is rapidly changing. From the last World Cup final, just eighteen months ago, thirteen of that team did not make it this time. A few were injured, including Harry Maguire at the eleventh hour. Maddison packed up and left the team hotel Wednesday night after being told Cole Palmer is now ahead of him.

Others such as Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson did not make the long list of 33 players last month. Raheem Sterling was thrown out after Qatar. Kalvin Phillips and Mason Mount have dropped out. Yet none of these selections have proven more difficult for Southgate than the past three days, with a match to be played against Iceland at Wembley on Friday evening and a European Championship selection to submit to UEFA the following day.

But if a team is to be judged by the quality of the players left out, then those absent show how much deeper England’s talent pool has become in Southgate’s eight years in charge.

It was clear to him that the likes of Kobbie Mainoo, Adam Wharton, Palmer and Eberechi Eze have made an unanswerable plea to be included. They are the men in shape. “The decision about picking a team,” said Southgate, “is always a snapshot in time.” The moment was the right one for some and, one suspects, for a manager who may feel he is taking charge of the England team for the last time in this fourth tournament.

Southgate pointed out that the squad has 11 players who have been to three tournaments or more, along with “younger players who are playing so well that we can’t ignore what they are doing.” “We’ve always tried to do that,” Southgate said. “Sometimes you may recover the group more than you expected a few months ago, but that has already created hunger and competitiveness, and the key now is that we have to connect as a group.”

Kobbie Mainoo trains in England before the selection for Euro 2024 is announcedKobbie Mainoo trains in England before the selection for Euro 2024 is announced

Both Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton hope to revive England’s midfield – Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Maguire’s omission was partly a fitness decision, but also one that required the manager’s final decision. Southgate had to decide whether England could wait for the fitness of a player who, the medical department judged, would only be ready for the knockout stages, assuming his rehabilitation went exactly to plan. The England manager calculated that he would have to take an extra defender as cover and decided that this could not be a sacrifice, even for a loyal soldier like Maguire.

He already took a risk on Luke Shaw, who hasn’t played since February 18. Kieran Trippier, another defender, has not had a full 90 minutes since February 27. It made Maguire a gamble too far. “We would be selling ourselves short elsewhere for a higher-risk player. [who] He won’t be able to do that and by the time he is fit he will already be out for seven weeks,” said Southgate. “There is so much dynamics. Yes, it’s a tough decision, but I think so [Maguire] know that he was not able to make as much progress as we would have liked over the past week.”

In the group stages, against Serbia, with Aleksandr Mitrovic, and Slovenia, with their 6-foot-1 goalkeeper Benjamin Sesko, there is no doubt that Maguire’s power in the air will be missed. When asked about that fact, Southgate curiously made use of Mainoo’s ability to defend corners, most notably in Manchester United’s FA Cup final win.

Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney benefited from the selection profile, having been assumed to be in the run-off to be understudy to Harry Kane, but both were selected. It is a remarkable comeback for Toney, who was banned from playing by the Football Association this time last year for a spectacular breach of the governing body’s gambling rules.

“We are aware of that, with 26 [players]“If you had a problem with Harry, if you only had one alternative you could be in trouble,” Southgate said. “The two boys have very different playing styles, different characteristics… we wanted different profiles.”

There were winners and losers, and Southgate suggested that. “There would be fear,” he said. “Not only the players, but the entire staff felt that. We are such a close group. The equipment guy, the medics work with the players to get them ready and have really invested in it. Everyone knew, he said, that it would be difficult, although no one could accuse the manager himself of taking the easy option.

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