There were lots of gasps of shock around the UK as Grant Hanley bolted back at an electric pace to dispossess the Czech Republic’s Jakub Jankto, halting a potentially dangerous counter-attack.
The Scot’s speed came as no surprise, however, to City fans, who’ve been aware of the attribute – which stands alongside fearsome bravery and aerial prowess as one of his best – for years. Hanley’s pace is a symbol of the widespread ignorance that surrounds him as a player, the ‘old-fashioned centre back’ veil that obscures how clever and effective the City captain can be. His ‘pace’ rating on the football video game FIFA 21 is 54 out of 99.
That the 29-year-old will be the subject of flak, out-jumped by Patrik Schick for the opening goal, is a window into the life of a professional defender. Just before the goal MyFootballWriter columnist Mick Dennis tweeted that Hanley was in “thou shalt not pass mode,” but his performance will likely go down as a poor one merely because of his presence as Schick rose characteristically to head home.
There were several moments that evidenced Hanley’s presence in a Daniel Farke team, his early clip out to Andy Robertson when under pressure followed by a clever Cruyff turn to get out of danger. His priority may to keep the ball out of the Tartan net, but he also starts attacks.
It’s safe to say that such aspects of his game were not so present during Hanley’s time as a Newcastle United player. The image among Scotland fans of the number 5 as a liability also suggests that his home country is yet to catch up with his new-found calmness in possession.
As City legend/rival Paul Lambert highlighted at half time, the Scots needed more thrust and ball progression from their back three. Hanley wasn’t name checked, but any Norwich fan watching knew who that responsibility fell to. Five minutes into the second period, those hopes were dealt a blow.
For the second time in three seasons, a City centre-back was the subject of a perhaps overly enthusiastic tackle from a West Ham player, Vladimir Coufal the offender this time as Hanley went down holding his knee. Attentions in Norfolk immediately turned to what that could mean for Norwich City; the fact that Christoph Zimmermann is still bearing the scars of Sebastian Haller’s dangerous 2019 tackle throbbing in the back of their minds.
A world class Schick goal doubled the Republic’s lead shortly afterwards, but it was encouraging to see Hanley heading away from a similar situation to the opener in the 59th minute. The truth was, however, that Scotland’s hopes died at 2-0.
The struggle of supporting a player at a tournament is that half the time they can’t do anything to change the situation. In the same way that Hanley was unlikely to inspire a great attacking comeback, Teemu Pukki had very little to do with Finland’s smash and grab win in Copenhagen.
It’s difficult to write a piece on a player who’s lost a game but performed well, but then, this is the problem Hanley faces going into 2021/22. He will lose more games than he wins. He will take criticism, a lot of it unjustified.
But that doesn’t bother him. Speaking to the High Performance Podcast, he said; “Fortunately for me, I’ve always known that it’s only really my judgement that really matters to me.”
It may not matter to him anyway, but for City fans, he’ll always remain the fearless warrior, as well as the accomplished ball player, they know he is.