England's mission | 

Roy Keane's brilliant cutting to the nub of Southgate was caustic, hilarious and illuminating

Keane's pitiless Henderson line tells a familiar story

Roy Keane not impressed by Southgate's decision to pick Jordan Henderson. (Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Roy Curtis

IT hardly breaches the Official Secrets Act to reveal that Roy Keane will never list diplomat as an alternative career.

Still, as Gareth Southgate seeks to rise from the debris of past Three Lions failures, he must ruefully wonder if the old Cork warlord takes a particularly sadistic pleasure in going in studs high on his soft and exposed English centre.

More than a quarter of a century after stamping on a helpless Southgate in an FA Cup semi-final - the one time the Irishman admitted to crossing the line on the pitch - Keane engraved a fresh Euro 2020 imprint.

It is the one that might just have Southgate doubting his own thinking ahead of today's Wembley date with Croatia.

Keane's brilliant cutting to the nub of Southgate including Jordan Henderson in his squad, regardless of the latter's match fitness - "I've heard people say, 'They want him around the place'. For what? Does he do card tricks?" - was caustic, hilarious, headline-grabbing and illuminating.

It shone a light on a familiar English act of self-harm at major tournaments: Selecting half-cocked big names who are nowhere near ready to deliver the best of themselves.

From David Beckham to Wayne Rooney and, before that, Bryan Robson and Kevin Keegan, they have marched onto summer's battlefield behind broken soldiers.

Is Southgate poised to join Sven and Fabio in ensnaring himself in his own similar self-made snare?

Keane's pitiless sound bite will fall like hard rain on his reputation should he detail a vulnerable, undercooked Henderson to shadow Luka Modric in this World Cup semi-final rematch.

Even if the Anfield skipper is, as he insists, fully fit, even if he brings qualities that The Kop weighs in gold, his inclusion would confirm a defensive Southgate ideology at odds with the wildly upbeat national mood.

A country desperate to see their manger shoehorn as much of England's deep and thrilling stock of young attacking firecrackers are likely to regard Henderson's name on the team sheet as a self-destructive declaration of caution.

Particularly if the Liverpool player's first start for club or country in 113 days is alongside England's temporary Irishman, Declan Rice, in a conservative double-pivot.

To borrow a GAA phrase, blanket defence (even the perception of parking the bus) is not what the flag supporters wish to march behind over the next month.

England's reservoir of game changers - Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling - might be the deepest in the entire tournament.

It is not only their fans who are intoxicated as they stare down the highway of possibility, the odds-makers also regard England's talented tyros as presenting the most acute danger to Kylian Mbappe and his France world champions.

Something momentous seems seconds away when Grealish or a generational talent like Foden - the Manchester City man regarded by shrewd judgers as a potential future Ballon d'Or winner - are in possession.

They are human stimulants, accelerants who can set Wembley ablaze with one flash of brilliance.

They are everything Henderson is not: Young, modish, adventurous, radical, fresh, exhilarating; the antithesis of the safe, prudent, grey, bureaucratic label most frequently stapled to Southgate's collar.

Jordan Henderson jokes with team mate Declan Rice during an England training session at St George's Park on June 09, 2021 in Burton upon Trent, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Pace and creativity, along with Harry Kane's steady nerve when the opposing goal appears in his crosshairs, are trump cards for an English side whose defensive fortifications are built on something resembling quicksand.

If Southgate remains incarcerated in the same philosophical penitentiary which undid England three years ago, the judgement will be brutal should his team fall short.

England's pace had tormented Croatia in that World Cup semi-final: but instead of reaching out to seize the moment, the manager withdrew Sterling, retreated into a shell and permitted Modric to wave his sorcerer's wand in extra-time.

If Pep Guardiola went to the other extreme in the Champions League final - dispensing with a midfield shield - the inclusion of Henderson or Kalvin Phillips alongside Rice will infuriate John Bull.

Croatia's key figures from 2018 have either departed (Mario Mandzukic) or find themselves, like soon-to-be 36-year-old Modric, deep in the autumn of their decorated careers.

England's best hope clearly lies with Southgate setting his flaming Ferraris free.

If it is true that Henderson wears the uniform of the natural-born leader, it is not the fashionable battledress: England is desperate to see its team sashay down the summer catwalk behind a Foden strut and a Grealish swagger.

Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden (PA)

Overlooking the fact that 55 years have passed since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup, the Saxon land is again a stranger to humility as another home tournament - England could play all bar one game at Wembley - beckons.

If hype could be converted into a foolproof sat-nav device, then football would have come home decades ago.

Instead, the brutal reality is that B and C-listers like Denmark and Greece have enjoyed their moment in the sun while England search futilely for the long lost and maddeningly elusive 1966 formula.

Their capacity to self-destruct - think Golden Generation, think Wags, think a tearful Gazza, think Southgate's missed penalty (an English tournament speciality) and the subsequent Pizza Hut advert - can seem like an immutable law of physics.

The manager's errant spot-kick that handed Germany the key to the Euro 96 final will be among the ghosts of his old life hanging over him this month.

Alongside those ancient spirits will be Keane, a Cork poltergeist making loud, unnerving and destabilising noises.

Even sitting in the ITV studio in an expensively cut suit, he will hover over England's manager today with the same frisson of danger and same menacing intent as 26 years ago.

If Keane's studs come down again, if Modric summons the magic of 2018 and the Corkman becomes an unlikely spokesman for John Bull, Southgate will be wounded beyond repair even before he limps out of Wembley.

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