Euro 2020 - England’s Jack Grealish and company need protection – Stuart Rayner

IT was a depressingly regular feature of England’s European Championship warm-up matches at Middlesbrough – fans’ favourite Jack Grealish picking up the ball, catching the eye with a nice touch but seldom able to fully make it count.

It is not a criticism of the Aston Villa playmaker.

Invariably as soon as he found the ball at or anywhere near his feet in a half-dangerous position – and so many positions on a football field become more dangerous when Grealish is in them – he tended to take a whack.

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Often not a big whack, never a red card-worthy whack, many times not even a yellow card-worthy one, but enough to knock him out of his stride and have James Ward-Prowse stand over another free-kick.

Jack Grealish: Target.

It actually won England the game against Romania, his tumble in the penalty area earning the spot kick Marcus Rashford put away, but that was beside the point.

This was a million miles away from Pele being brutally kicked out of the 1966 World Cup but it was still frustrating to watch, not what the punters paid for or the television viewers switched on to see.

First there was the frustration that Ward-Prowse, England’s supreme free-kick-taker, will not be at the European Championship but that is in the past now, time to move on.

The greater annoyance was that even in an era where fair players like Grealish are far better protected than they were even as recently as when Gareth Southgate was playing, it was allowed to happen in two games in a week.

Phil Foden: Flair..

Both matches were denied much rhythm and the fans mercifully back in the stands were denied seeing one of European football’s most gifted attacking players show the full range of his talent.

In all, England’s players were fouled 31 times over the two friendlies, but no-one was booked for fouling Grealish.

The 25-year-old is used to it, comfortably the most-fouled player in last season’s Premier League despite missing almost a quarter of the matches.

“So as long as I can keep getting as many fouls in and around the box I’ll take the kicks to help my team, definitely,” he said after the Austria friendly but on the field he did not seem to take his kicking with such good grace, and quite rightly too.

Raheem Sterling: Threat.

Grealish does not help himself not just with his joke child-sized shinpads which may as well have targets painted on the bare leg above them but more especially with his willingness to go to ground – ironically, the penalty he won was one of the softer decisions to go his way. But nor is that a cheat’s charter either.

We supposedly have 18 of the continent’s best referees in the middle at this tournament with high-tech back-up, so we need them to know the difference between a dive and a dirty dig, and to make sure players are not tag-teamed out of matches.

This is not about Grealish per se. It is about all the talented attackers we want the opportunity to see the best of between now and July 11.

Pre-season and pre-tournament friendlies are not officiated in the same way as competitive games. The Riverside referees (Tiago Martins and Lawrence Visser) have unsurprisingly not been selected for the Championship.

England's Mason Mount: Talent.

Major international tournaments usually begin with clampdowns ordered from above. The focuses this year are on holding, pushing, reckless challenges and serious foul play which could endanger a player’s safety.

All of those are important but so is trying to create an environment where flair players are allowed to play. Grealish’s manager, who also has Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling at his disposal, should be particularly keen that they are.

We do not want another Italia 90, either in terms of brutal defending or ludicrous diving to try and even it up.

Hopefully, what we saw at the Riverside was not the start of a pattern, just some second-tier referees taking the friendly spirit too far and defenders without the jeopardy of suspension from a major tournament for totting up yellow cards.

Flair players quite rightly get treated much better than they used to, but June’s friendlies show we still need to keep an eye out for them.