Sideline Cut: Whatever Jack Grealish decides, he has proved loyalty to Ireland

Choice on international future is one the 19-year-old must be allowed to take time over

Still green: Jack Grealish celebrates scoring for Ireland Under-21s in 2013. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Still green: Jack Grealish celebrates scoring for Ireland Under-21s in 2013. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Try walking in Jack Grealish’s shoes this week. True, he wears the best quiff of any English-born youngster with Irish heritage since Johnny Maher first showed up on Top of the Pops, but the sudden clamour for Grealish to declare whether he is definitively English or definitively Irish is both unfair and impossible. Because he is both.

The style with which Grealish took his chance in last Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final has made middle England look hard at the so-called granny rule. Aston Villa’s progress to the FA Cup final was just what the declining glamour competition of English football needed: a big, solid midlands establishment club embarking on a heroic cup run and unleashing a fearless, tricky youngster in the semi-final against FA Cup aristocrats Liverpool.

Grealish’s willingness to have a go, to get the ball and run, became the story of the afternoon and helped to disguise the truth that Liverpool’s efforts to keep up with the big four are becoming more strained by the week. The vivid showcasing of his potential has sharpened desire on both sides of the Irish Sea for Grealish to make his choice.

Speaking on Talksport on the day after Villa’s win, Grealish’s father, Kevin, was asked about his Irish background and said that his parents came from Kerry and Galway and that his father-in-law was a Dubliner but that he was Birmingham born, as was his son. Jack Grealish has spoken about playing for Warwickshire at half-time during an All-Ireland quarter-final six quick summers ago and he has been on Irish underage representative teams all the way through. He was scouted and invited, and he took up the offer: it made sense and it made his family proud.

Just how tough is it to make it as a professional footballer in England, let alone one touted as a future England international? How many youngsters of Grealish’s generation with similar talent and application just didn’t quite make the transition through to professionalism? When Grealish was 13, he was already entering a world that required intense dedication and mental toughness and smart decision-making. He started playing for Irish underage teams and clearly considered it a sufficiently important honour to have his entire family present when he collected the FAI Under-21 player of the year award.

Irish strongholds

Noel Gallagher

Wayne Rooney’s grandmother Patricia – born on March 17th – told the economist David McWilliams one day in a Liverpool boozer that her grandson was “English on the outside, but Irish on the inside”, a neat summary which contained volumes.

Grealish, born in 1995, belongs to a generation of young English kids whose Irish heritage won’t be as pronounced as those of Gallagher’s or even Rooney’s generation. He was born in England and has grown up with English friends and has spent his life immersed in a football culture in which playing for England is seen as the ultimate accolade and ambition. He has already demonstrated loyalty to the idea of playing for Ireland by turning down an invitation to join the England Under-17 squad three years ago. And he has spoken of his gratitude to Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill for the nature of their conversation when they met last August, for not pressurising him into a quick decision.

Maybe Grealish is privately smarting that he hasn’t yet had a full senior call-up, and if he does end up wearing an England shirt in two years’ time, then O’Neill and Roy Keane will have to live with the accusations that they allowed the real thing to walk away. But what would be the point of rushing the 19-year-old through and securing the two senior caps that would make him officially and irrevocably Irish in terms of football? That smacks of desperation.

Ever since Jack Charlton began to use the ancestry rule as his chief tactical weapon, Irish football has been glad to claim all-comers from England. Some probably felt more passionately about their Irish background than others, and all probably figured it was their best shot at playing international football.

Scouting system

Mark LawrensonJohn Aldridge

Let’s say Grealish would be happy to play for both Ireland and England, that he has, as Nan Rooney put it, external and internal divides of patriotism and familial pull. Wouldn’t he be mad to walk away from playing for England, the country of his birth, the country whose teams have featured at every World Cup tournament in his lifetime? True, they have done nothing significant at world tournaments since the Italian summer of Gascoigne and Lineker, but at every tournament England are one of the establishment nations, and all eyes are on them.

To make a declaration for England would be for Grealish to back himself, to announce that he believes himself to be among the very best group of English footballers in the game. To walk away from potential exposure to the far edge of international football drama at the age of 19 . . . it’s a big decision. To declare for your grandparents’ country, a country with a semi-professional league and – despite the reverence for the escapist football summers of 1990, 1994 and 2002 – a patchy record in the international game . . . that is also a huge call.

And it is one Grealish must make in his own sweet time. There was enough hesitation and understandable ambivalence in Kevin Grealish’s voice in that radio interview to suggest that a future for his son in an England shirt has become a distinct possibility.

It would be a shame if Ireland lose out on such an exciting young player. But if Jack Grealish does end up wearing green at senior level, it will be because he wants to play for Ireland above all else; not because England didn’t choose him but because he didn’t choose England.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.