How Jack Grealish benefited from GAA’s school of hard knocks

Aston Villa winger is one of few bright spots for club struggling to make impression

Aston Villa winger Jack Grealish celebrates his side’s second goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium last April. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP Photo

Aston Villa winger Jack Grealish celebrates his side’s second goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium last April. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP Photo

 

There is a story that does the rounds among the compact Gaelic football community in Warwickshire of Jack Grealish’s first match for his local club, John Mitchels, which perhaps gives an indication of the steely undercurrent many at Aston Villa believe will enable him to become their leading performer this season.

Early on in his debut, the tale goes, an eight-year-old Grealish was taught a valuable lesson. Even at under-10, Gaelic football can be a tough, uncompromising sport, so when Grealish was knocked to the floor in a tussle with an opponent and demanded a free-kick, he was swiftly told to get back on his feet.

“This isn’t soccer, son,” came the referee’s response, offering a rustic reminder that, even in a blustery Birmingham field, he would need toughening up to make the grade. Grealish went on to score a goal and three points in the same game, an august return for a novice playing with boys a year older.

Unperturbed

By then he was patented as one to watch at Bodymoor Heath. Having joined Villa at six, two years after becoming a season-ticket holder, he was unperturbed when playing a couple of age-groups above. He savoured having a Gaelic football in his hands, even scoring for Warwickshire at the sport’s promised land, Croke Park, but when the time came to choose which to focus on, there would only be one winner.

Grealish adores Villa. At a time where loyalty is hard to come by in football, he bustles with pride when he pulls the shirt on. Supporters will, rightly, be more patient with him than others, a benefit of being one of their own, but he has reached a crucial juncture in his young career. There have been headlines of the wrong kind: in June he was pictured lying apparently drunk on the street during a holiday in Tenerife. Two months earlier he was warned by Villa’s manager, Tim Sherwood, after being pictured ingesting nitrous oxide. A defining moment is on the horizon – and it should make compelling viewing.

He was absent from the opening-day win over Bournemouth and the defeat to Manchester United because of a hamstring injury but impressed against Crystal Palace and Notts County upon returning. Struggling Sunderland arrive on Saturday and even at this embryonic stage of the campaign a result and performance appear important.

Although Premier League survival was attained with a modicum of comfort last season, things soon took a turn for the worse at Villa and the summer was grim. After succumbing miserably to Arsenal in that most lopsided FA Cup final, they lost their two best players, Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, to Liverpool and Manchester City. Randy Lerner remains owner after a proposed takeover broke down. Beleaguered fans spent much of the off-season searching for something positive to focus on.

In need of a hero, many have cast eyes on a 19-year-old from Solihull to provide hope of awakening the club from a prolonged stupor.

It has been a curious nine months for Grealish. Despite making his first start in the FA Cup third-round win over Blackpool on January 4th, it was not until the exorcising of Paul Lambert’s dreary reign that the shackles came off. Easily forgotten amid the hype, he did not make his first league start until April 7th, but it was the performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final 12 days later which piqued interest outside of Birmingham.

Since, he has been centre of attention, as much for his conduct off the field as on it. Yet critics who say he is a role model should realise Grealish is a footballer not a paragon. Those who know him say that despite the social attractions, he is grounded, with a strong circle of family and friends keeping him on an even keel.

Tears of joy

His father, Kevin, may have been a near-perpetual feature on radio after his breakthrough, but a strong family bond and a proud dad is to be admired. After his dazzling performance in the Cup semi-final , Grealish rushed to his parents near Wembley’s royal box. They embraced and there were tears of joy. When he arrived home that night, his parents already in bed, Grealish left his shirt on the sofa. The morning after, his dad put the shirt on and did not remove it all day. It is a rare tale of footballing romance, something to be cherished for as long as possible.

In many ways, Grealish was like the annoying boy in school who would excel effortlessly at whatever sport he turned to. Soccer and Gaelic coaches speak of his natural ability, but a work ethic bordering on obsessive must not be underestimated. Sherwood told him in pre-season the best way to silence critics is to “graft your balls off” and thus far he has given every indiction he has taken the advice on board, despite the hamstring injury.

Grealish’s old Gaelic football coach at John Mitchels, Michael Healy, gives an important insight into how characteristics forged at a young age have translated to his breakthrough success and, worryingly for opposition defenders, believes there is much more to come, not least leadership qualities which will be more apparent as he progresses.

“He had that raw natural ability from the start, but we noticed quite early that he was a good motivator,” Healy says. “Sometimes when you get special players they are arrogant and run the show but he was always quite inclusive with the other lads. In the first year he did quite well but from the second year onwards he was by far the best player we had.”

Yet it must not be forgotten how little Premier League football Grealish has played (910 minutes), and predictions that his ability can lead Sherwood’s team up a level are premature. He has not scored, yet is a marked man – he was fouled more regularly than any other player in the Premier League last season (every 21 minutes) – and things are going to intensify.

“Because he was one of the better players he was targeted,” Healy adds. “There were a lot of similarities to him getting kicked a lot for Villa last season. I think playing with Mitchels made him tougher, especially because you take a lot more hits compared to football.”

When Roy Keane took his first training session as Lambert’s assistant, the teenager admitted to an element of dread because he presumed Keane would take an immediate dislike to his rock star haircut and lowered socks. Things started badly and Keane soon approached. “Is everything OK?” he asked. Grealish replied affirmatively and was swiftly told: “Get on with it then.” That Keane is a keen admirer says much of his reaction.

The Republic of Ireland assistant manager has been one of few voices preaching patience over Grealish’s choice of international team (a decision is expected soon according to Ireland manager Martin O’Neill), understanding that time and space to develop is required. In the overhyped world of the Premier League, both are at a premium. If things do not go to plan, it will not take long for vultures to circle.

Lowered socks

Grealish, whose hero is George Best (which explains the lowered socks and children’s shinpads as if to invite defenders’ challenges), could also do a lot worse than take note of the dozens who have shown flashes of brilliance early on, but have fallen aside when hysteria takes hold. All the signs, though, from the solid background to the insatiable work ethic fostered in a little-known Gaelic football pitch a couple of miles south of Birmingham airport point towards Grealish continuing his ascent.

Such is the world we live in, success is expected instantly, however. The search for new heroes and villains is immediate, but with Grealish maybe we should be patient. Talented free spirits do not pass by often and unlike those before him, he should be nurtured not rushed – for his and the game’s sake. Either way, what comes next will be fascinating. Guardian Service

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