It was GASCOIGNE (8) in 1996. SHEARER (9) in 1998. Probably BECKHAM (7) in 2002.
Each international tournament has a certain replica shirt replete with the name and number of a memorable player. Often one of pre-existing high stock who characterises the soul and hope of those few months that summer.
For Euro 2020, it has been hard to pin down a standout among England fans. Wembley Way has seen all of Kane (9), Rashford (11), Mount (19), Rice (4), Phillips (14), Foden (20), Saka (25), Sancho (17) and a smattering of Pickfords (1). Grealish (7) has been a popular alternatives choice, while the rise of Sterlings (10) over the last few weeks correlates with shops selling out of the number 1.
There have even been a few Stones (5), Maguires (6) and Mings (15). With apologies to them and those in possession, but who forks out for the name of a centre-back? Worthy, no doubt, but it feels a bit like having a favourite brand of Greek yoghurt (Fage, if you’re wondering).
The point is, rarely have there been so many riders in the battle for beneath-the-shoulder space among the English support.
Even in the current euphoria, getting a shirt with a name takes a lot of consideration unless you share a surname. Perhaps a little less for your club’s colours, where profile and longevity come into play and are often at odds with one another unless you support one of the bigger teams. Of course, some of those names on England shirts are in keeping with club lines, though even they feel like the minority this summer.
Then again, a tournament shirt carries the extra weight of real-time memorabilia. And the name that adorns the back will hold your hand as you walk back to this time, when everything football – and thus, everything life – was so sweet. Your designated sherpa through nostalgia.
Fancy some leading lights? Try Kane, Sterling and Shaw. Warriors? Take your pick from Maguire, Stones, Mings and Henderson. Shoulder-checking dazzlers? One of Phil Foden, Phillips or Mount should do you right. Mavericks? Oh, they’ve got a few: Grealish, Sancho and Saka have you covered. Rave enthusiasts? You already know.
You could pick the names of this squad out of a hat. All worthy to wear, whether contributions big and small that have enhanced the national mood.
It brings into focus a rarely asked question that we somehow have an answer for. What do you want from a national team’s incumbents? Or, to put it another way, what should we expect from them beyond success?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question – just different ones pertaining to our beliefs, experiences and peccadillos. Rarely has there been a collective catering for all three.
At the crux of all this, though, seems something deeper: maybe those chosen names reflect us as people? Perhaps it is the product of the society we find ourselves in. When how we identify is so precious, football’s meritocracy and circumstance have us cheering on a group that, somehow, has wound up representing all of us. In these times, that’s some achievement – it might end up their most enduring.
They hail from all corners, from southwest to northeast, even from Kingstons of Royal Borough and Jamaica. Many from working-class beginnings, all with a different tale to tell of how they ended up here.
The products of caged play areas and open fields. Children of divorce, children of single parents, children or men of struggle – some both – whether apparent or internal.
Not all have trodden elite pathways. Some have been dropped by clubs, others having to reassess their roles, never dreaming of finding themselves on the cusp of being names that will go on to be remembered in the same breath as those from 1966.
Many of them are as we are or how we once were, right down to the way they conduct themselves beyond professional engagements; their conversations replete with the slang some of us might suppress. Whether Rice and Mount flaunting their bromance, Saka’s inability to nutmeg someone without saying “whoops”, or Sancho relaying his dribbling philosophy as wanting to “violate” and “badding people up”. Or Grealish saying, if not for football, he’d be out in Ibiza as a rep getting everybody in the club.
That’s all before we get to the altruistic streak running through the core. One that is no burden because of experiences lived, whether Rashford’s work for food poverty, Sancho’s initiative to create safe playing spaces in southeast London, or duty of care such as Stones’ work with young offenders or Maguire handing out food parcels last Christmas. Even beyond their spheres, like when Jordan Henderson reached out to send a message of support to non-binary England fan Joe White, who attended his first match in full make-up, was a nod to how empathy is such a negligible tax on these players.
These city boys, country sorts, jokers, likely lads, ballers, mandem and brothers going about their work while making the rest of us feel a part of it. Even if that is going out on the pitch and enjoying what most of us cannot, and doing so with such distinction. Regardless of how Sunday plays out against Italy, these shirts with their names will carry more than just a recognition of sporting excellence and good times.
At the end of the 2018 World Cup, Southgate gathered his squad to tell them one uncomfortable truth: that they as a group will never be together again. While their talent got to them to a certain elite level, fate decided they would be in Russia and in possession of this privileged responsibility.
He will surely reiterate that same message here. And though it will be said to highlight the significance of what they have done and the relationships they have forged, perhaps we should take heed as well.
This team has allowed us to believe while making us feel more connected to them as individuals than ever before. Now and in the future, the name on the back matters a little bit less than the badge on the front and the shirt itself. We have never related more or been prouder to be English when all of them were our England.