A tight game at Wembley in the English summer of 2021 and a spot of clock-watching and bench-watching to see whether Jack Grealish might come on. It’s basically become a national past time.
Of course, this was the more sedate setting of the Community Shield between Leicester City and Manchester City, whose freshly minted £100million man was among the substitutes, and not the febrile passion pit of a push for Euro 2020 glory. More the sort of occasion that might cause you to happily wave a sparkler around rather than stick a flare somewhere unmentionable.
Not that the men on the touchline were taking this lightly. Pep Guardiola, fairly remarkably, managed to get booked as he did during the 2019 version of this fixture. He disagreed volubly after referee Paul Tierney penalised Cole Palmer for an aerial challenge on Leicester full-back Ryan Bertrand.
Shortly afterwards, Brendan Rodgers responded to a botched Kasper Schmeichel clearance by booting a water bottle towards the grey London sky.
Grealish had been merrily volleying balls around with his new team-mates during the warm-up, which he closed by thundering a 40-yard strike just over the top corner before being the last player off with an arm around City youth-team captain Tommy Doyle.
The price-tag certainly isn’t weighing too heavily right now for a man who looks as if he lacks a single care in the world, even if his public approval ratings have taken a hit.
Wembley laid on universal adoration for Grealish and his velvet touches while playing for Gareth Southgate’s England. Here, the booing from the Leicester end felt a little more edgy than pantomime when the ex-Aston Villa captain appeared on the big screen before kick-off and again when he sauntered into a gentle jog and some stretches early in the second period.
By that stage, a Leicester side close to full-strength – although lacking Wesley Fofana after the broken leg he suffered on the end of an awful tackle from Villarreal’s Fer Nino in midweek – had enjoyed the edge in terms of clear chances. Zack Steffen made two close-range saves, the second particularly excellent, to deny Jamie Vardy, who played with his typical verve.
As the hour passed, it was certainly a contest worthy of Guardiola and Rodgers’ investment. Teenage winger Sam Edozie grew into the match for the Premier League champions, buoyed by three goals in three pre-season outings. Ilkay Gundogan slashed off target inside a crowded penalty area, as did Riyad Mahrez when through on goal, naturally to much brouhaha in the Leicester end.
Then, in the 64th minute, some activity on the bench. Grealish thumbed through a tactics clipboard far less weighty than any encyclopaedia, threw on his white match shirt and joined Rodri on the touchline. The Manchester contingent roared and further barracking followed from the other end of the stadium.
With his first involvement, English football’s former unity candidate dribbled easily past Ayoze Perez and laid off to Rodri. A few seconds later he was down the left flank and won a throw in a dangerous position, before a Palmer pass allowed him to advance into the Leicester area, where he was crowded out.
In the 70th minute, Grealish returned the favour with a delicious outside-of-the-foot pass, although Youri Tielemans was back to thwart the youngster. It demonstrated the space that was being opened up by two opposition players going towards the British record signing every time he collected the ball. The damage the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden might do in such conditions when they return is a chilling prospect for the rest of the league.
Bernardo Silva was rapturously welcomed for potentially a farewell City appearance and the midfielder’s introduction allowed Grealish to rove – a pirouetting dribble in-field ended with him tumbling to the turf and left Tierney unimpressed.
The official had a simple call when he pointed to the spot in the 87th minute. Nathan Ake blotted a solid afternoon’s work by bundling Kelechi Iheanacho over and the former City striker thumped his spot-kick past the impressive Steffen.
Wembley fate sealed from 12 yards as you watch on. The more things change, eh Jack?
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