- You’re 19 years old.You’re a professional footballer.
- You play for one of the oldest and most successful clubs in England.
- You’re the darling of the English and Irish football media.
- You are Jack Grealish.
Over the last few weeks Jack Grealish has moved from being – that “exciting prospect who plays for Aston Villa and Ireland, whom few had previously seen play” to “the future saviour of Villa/England/Ireland’s football teams”. It’s been a tumultuous week for Jack and perhaps many are already tired of the exposure and the will he/won’t he debate. But how did he get here?
Jack Grealish was destined to be a star. His great, great grandfather, Billy Garraty, played for Aston Villa in the early part of the 20th century. With the not too shabby goal scoring record of 96 goals in 224 appearances for The Villians, Billy won a First Division winner’s medal in 1900 and an FA Cup winner’s medal with a Man of the Match performance in 1903. Billy was also capped once – for Ireland England.
Even Jack’s name has pedigree. Irish fans of a certain vintage will remember the game exploits of hirsute winger Tony Grealish in the early 80’s and of course the name Jack already looms large in Irish soccer history.
Jack Grealish was born in Solihull, 9 miles south of Birmingham, in 1996. Jacks parents are both English born. Three of Jack’s grandparents hail from Ireland. Jack joined his club, Aston Villa, at the age of six. He progressed up the ladder of the Villa Youth Academy, to gain an unused sub’s seat at the age of 16 in a premier league 2-4 defeat against Chelsea in March 2012. Season 2013-14 was spent on loan to Notts County, scoring 5 goals and providing seven assists in 32 starts.
Playing a bit part for Villa’s first team under Paul Lambert during the 2014-15 season, until Lambert was replaced by Tim Sherwood in February, Jack broke into the first team in April 2015. Then came that sensational FA Cup Semi-Final Man of the Match performance in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley and millions more live on BBC TV against Liverpool. This has been followed by weeks of steadfast UK and Irish radio and print comment. Talk about trending….
Jack’s been no slouch at international level either. He has represented Ireland on 19 occasions, from U-15 level through to U-21 level. He was named Irish U-17 player of the year for 2012 and Irish U-21 player of the year for 2014. Though, after just two U-21 caps, the latter award may be a mite self-serving on behalf of the FAI.
Playing at midfield, on the left, on the right or attacking through the middle, he has the instinct to find pockets of space on the pitch, the ability to receive the ball and glide past players and the composure to find team-mates with a telling pass. To quote Tim Sherwood, Jack plays “like he’s got wing-mirrors” – testament to his spatial awareness and the cherished ability to find that few extra feet of space which gives him the freedom to do his thing.
One of the notable features of that FA Cup semi-final was that his team-mates kept trying to find him on the pitch, which demonstrates in them a recognition of and a confidence in Jack’s ability. This, from those who train and play with him every day. Another feature of his rise for Villa and Ireland has been his ability to play above his age group.
Grealish is fearless enough to take on players knowing that if he fails he will always get another chance to fail better. You have to commend Tim Sherwood for giving him the chance during the semi-final. He has the confidence to hold the ball until the right pass opens up and the ability to make that telling pass – a priceless quality that perhaps only Wes Hoolahan on the Irish team comes anywhere near to possessing.
He plays with his socks around his ankles. Didn’t George Best do the same from time to time? And I recall Liam Brady sporting the same style in the greatest FA Cup final ever for Arsenal in 1979. As an Arsenal fan I’m hoping Grealish doesn’t have a similar style and starring role as Brady had that day in Wembley, on May 30th next. He plays with that joie-de-vivre that only someone of his age and with his talent can. With his quiff, boyish charm and obvious joy in playing the game Jack endears himself to the public in a way that is refreshingly unique in the money-laden premiership (nitrous oxide aside).
The media debate has centered on Jack Grealish Ireland/England allegiances. Johnny Giles says “get him in the squad now”. Shay Given says “Jack’s a little confused. Jack’s at a crossroads. Don’t put him under pressure”. Martin O’Neill reckons “he’s definitely got ability” but is cautious about bringing him into the senior squad as yet. Roy Keane reckons the “Knowing his dad, we could be waiting a bloody long time!” for a decision.
I see Ireland as being ahead of the posse. Jack has already demonstrated his loyalty to Ireland over the last 5 years, undoubtedly influenced by his parents. His father, Kevin, seems to be a strong, protective influence on his son, which augers well. Kevin Grealish will be patently aware of the way the English media can raise a player up only to drop them when they don’t turn out to be England’s knight in shining armour after all. He will have seen how many players have squandered their talents and opportunities when exposed to the riches of the Premiership – David Bentley, Lee Sharpe, Paul Gascoigne (pre-Premiership), Jermaine Pennant to name but a few. He will realise that though success with Ireland would be rare (we haven’t beaten a team of note since 2001) the “success bar” for England is much higher than that for the Republic and even more elusive. Martin O’Neill has spoken with Jack and his father and they know where the Irish management stand. The English management have been aware of Jack for a number of years but he has spurned their advances already so why would he change tact now?
However, decision time has arrived and he needs to decide by next autumn. He is certainly not too young – Wayne Rooney had 20 appearances by age 20, Raheem Sterling (an English international though born in Kingston, Jamaica) already had 13 and Gareth Bale a dozen or so. He is certainly ready – the FA Cup semi-final was proof of that.
He and his father have insisted that he would not return to international duty until September and then probably for the Under 21s. It is highly unlikely he would feature in the crucial senior games versus Poland or Germany, but he should at least be selected on these squads. In the increasingly unlikely event of Ireland qualifying for Euro 2016 the most likely scenario is that he would feature in the autumn/spring friendlies and subsequently be eased into an integral role for the World Cup 2018 qualifiers. The thought of an Irish player setting the pitch alight in Krasnodar or Saint Petersburg in June 2018 makes the heart flutter.
Whatever his motivation, he needs to make a decision based not on “which country will give me a better chance of glory/profile/honours” but based on a pride in playing in the Irish/English shirt. Only he can honestly answer that question. Let’s hope the answer is of a green hue.
Your choice Jack!
- Author: Carl Musgrave