Mason Mount gets off the golf buggy that has brought him over from the England team hotel at St George’s Park and saunters over to his seat at an outdoor trestle table, where a semi-circle of journalists is ranged in front of him. The sound of Mount’s best mate, Declan Rice, belting out a version of Sweet Caroline for a radio host, booms forth from one of the little marquees nearby.
Mount looks down and smiles at his friend’s bravado. He is an understated man. He is 22 going on 32, confident but not cocky, the character template that Gareth Southgate loves. Actually, the character template that any manager would love. Some people called him a teacher’s pet when he played for Frank Lampard at Derby and Chelsea. That just makes Lampard a wise teacher.
Mount is about to play in the biggest game of his life but you would not know it. Nothing seems to faze him, another reason why he is one of the star exhibits of the new breed of England player who have taken the country further than in any major tournament since 1966. His youthful optimism, his connection with the fans, has captured the public mood.
Mason Mount is the face of fearless England and has captured the public mood
Some people might choose the image of Bukayo Saka leaping into a swimming pool on the back of a blow-up unicorn to illustrate the simple joy that England have brought to the country at Euro 2020. Others might opt for Raheem Sterling cradling his young child after the great catharsis of the second-round win over Germany.
Most of those who have seen it, though, would pick the footage of Mount walking into the Wembley crowd after the semi-final against Denmark on Wednesday and handing his shirt to a 10-year-old girl, Belle McNally, who was so overcome with happiness that she turned to her father and started sobbing uncontrollably.
The pictures went viral. They struck a chord. There is something about this England team, apart from the results they have achieved, that has captured the imagination of ordinary fans. It is their youth, their optimism, their decency and their courage to stand up for what they believe in. Put it together and it smells like hope and Mount embodies all of it.
He is about to play the biggest match of his career but you wouldn’t notice it
‘Sometimes, it’s more than football, what happens,’ says Mount. ‘It wasn’t something that I had planned. Belle and her dad, they had a flag with my name on it, I saw it when we went out to warm up and then after the game, we were celebrating on that side and I saw they had the flag up again.
‘So I just thought I would give it to her. She’ll remember that for a long time and I’ll remember it for a long time. To get into a final with your country is special and to do that afterwards topped it off for me. To see that reaction was very special.’
Sometimes, it feels as if Mount still does not get enough credit for the footballer he has become. He has achieved more in his fledgling years than some players do in their entire careers. In May, he won the Champions League with Chelsea as they swept Manchester City aside in Porto. Now, he is about to play in the final of the European Championship. Only nine men have completed that double.
In Porto, it was his pass that set Kai Havertz free for the match-winning goal. Again, there seemed to be a temptation to damn Mount with faint praise. Many blamed City’s central defenders for being too far apart but Mount’s slide-rule pass was not only beautifully directed but it was perfectly weighted for Havertz to run on to so that his momentum took him past Ederson in the City goal.
Midfielder Mount has the character template that every manager he has seems to love
And already in this tournament, Mount has shown enough resilience to prove his strength of character. After the Scotland game, he and Ben Chilwell were forced to self-isolate for 10 days because they had talked to Chelsea team-mate Billy Gilmour in the Wembley tunnel and Gilmour subsequently returned a positive Covid-19 test.
Some would rage at cruel fate for that. Some would worry that their tournament was over. Some would fear Southgate would yield to the incessant calls for Jack Grealish to be played. Some would think they would never get their place back. Mount said he did not entertain any of those siren songs.
‘It was difficult,’ he says, ‘but I kind of stayed strong throughout. Obviously, it was frustrating but I just tried to stay positive.
‘When we got through the final group game and we knew the next game was Germany, just being involved in the meetings virtually, listening to the game plans, it really helped for us to stay positive.
He’s shown his resilience keeping his place in the team after missing a match to isolate
‘We’re still in the bubble, still learning about what the boys are doing. Looking further on, I really wanted the boys to do well so I’d have the opportunity to be involved in the later games.’
Mount was brought back into the side for the quarter-final against Ukraine in Rome and started against the Danes in the semi-final. He is expected to start against Italy, too, where immortality awaits him and his team-mates if they can lift the trophy.
Many have suggested that Mount will be given the task of subduing his Chelsea team-mate, Jorginho, the Italy playmaker who sets the tempo for the Azzurri. Jorginho is renowned as a lover of practical jokes and Mount has got to know his tricks, on and off the pitch.
‘There’s one that’s quite common in football,’ Mount says. ‘When we go out to train, there’s like this big microwave which heats the boots up so when you put them on it feels nice and it’s not tough and hard. When you have studs that are metal, they get boiling hot.
Mount is one of the star exhibits of a new breed of England player shown at this tournament
‘So when Jorginho walks out and everyone is putting their boots on, he puts a hot stud on your leg. It burns your leg. But I know the drill now and I look out for it.’
Mount remembers the first time he represented his country, at Under-16 level. He remembers belting out the national anthem as loud as he could, just as his dad had told him to, just like he still does now.
When he thinks of England, he says, he thinks of where he grew up in Portsmouth. ‘But also when I think of England,’ he says, ‘I think of the passion that the country has — not just for football but the passion everybody has to be from England. That’s how I am as well.’
Mount is aware, of course, of England’s failings down the years. His first real memory of tournament football is seeing Lampard’s shot bounce down off the bar and cross the line against Germany at the 2010 World Cup only for the referee to wave play on. He was 11 and consumed by the injustice of it.
But this is not a group scarred by the past. ‘We know we have never been in a final since 1966 and it’s a massive game,’ he says, ‘but for us, we want to create our own history.
‘We know how difficult it will be against Italy. You see the run they have been on, and it is 30-something games unbeaten. You know how strong they are from the back, two centre-backs, warriors, and you see how passionate they are.
‘We have been going into every game with that desire to win. We have to bring it all and be at the top of our game. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be two teams going at each other that are in good form. I am absolutely buzzing for the game to come around.’
And if England win, will he give away his shirt again? ‘I think that’s probably a shirt you keep,’ he says.