Jack Grealish ready to remind us what fuss was all about
Former bright prospect ready for a fresh start under Steve Bruce at Aston Villa
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish shoots at goal during the Sky Bet Championship match against Derby County at the iPro Stadium. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Remember Jack Grealish? Remember the fuss? Remember when he was the centre of the universe for a few weeks as he hovered over the Irish Sea debating where his international future lay?
There was Irish outcry when Grealish chose England. There was English smugness.
And then young Jack Grealish went back to Aston Villa and, far from playing his way into the senior England set-up, he instead faded to the periphery of a Villa team freewheeling uncontrollably to Premier League relegation.
It was not his fault. Grealish had just gone from inexperienced teenager to inexperienced 20-year-old when he was pushed to choose his football nationality. It was late September 2015 and, looking back, at that stage in his embryonic career Grealish had started and finished six 90-minute Premier League games. Six.
There had been other starts, curtailed by substitutions, and there had been appearances from the bench. There was the starburst FA Cup semi-final performance at Wembley against Liverpool. There had been a season on loan at Notts County, where he held his own in League One.
But Grealish was a novice, one with a career-defining decision on his hands. It just did not look that way.
He had been 16 when placed on the Villa bench for a Premier League game against Chelsea in 2012. It was so long ago Daniel Sturridge scored for Chelsea. Grealish was 16 and the future – Villa’s future, Ireland’s future, then England’s future. It was too much – pressure, scrutiny, expectation – too young.
Some six eventful and sometimes uneventful years on, when front-page controversy has been as prominent as back-page success, where relegation at a club in turmoil included personal disciplinary punishments, there followed a debilitating kidney injury in Villa’s last pre-season that kept Grealish out until November. He had drifted to the margins of English football and our awareness. He had not won an England cap. Scrutiny went elsewhere.
Then on Monday, on a dark January evening, the latest of the six managers Grealish has witnessed at Villa Park, Steve Bruce, shone a light on Jack Grealish and declared: “All of a sudden he looks like a man.”
It was not a claim heard previously about the boy.
Grealish had just played the first 80 minutes of Villa’s 5-0 Championship victory over promotion rivals Bristol City two days after coming on in the first half of the away win at Middlesbrough. Villa had six points and fresh momentum, Grealish had two hours of significant football. Jack was back.
Prior to that he had completed only three 90 minutes, so Boro-Bristol was a stamina test.
“His running ability, his strength, it’s there to see,” Bruce said, mentioning Grealish’s long hours in the gym with the club’s strength-and-conditioning coach. Bruce concluded: “Let’s be fair, he’s only 22.”
It was a pertinent comment. There is a brutal assumption in professional football that a 22-year-old should be a fully-formed player, especially if he was with the first team aged 16. Considering it is immature in so many ways as an industry – impatience being part of that – it is ironic that football should demand maturity from boys on the way to becoming men.
At 22, Bruce, a future Manchester United leader, was playing for Gillingham. There he received none of the focus Grealish has endured, or enjoyed. Bruce developed, made mistakes, improved, went backwards, matured – off camera.
But that was 1982. Grealish was not born until September 1995 and by the time September 2015 came along the world of English football bore a high visibility jacket. Gifted boys – English, Irish, from wherever – were in the public interest.
Having, via his Irish grandparents, first pulled on an Irish jersey at 14, Grealish played through the ages for the Republic to under-21 level. He resisted, more than once, the courting of England.
But it was there. He was in demand, receiving constant praise and for a teenager to find balance in such circumstances is not easy.
There was progress. As shown by his Premier League appearances, it was too early for Grealish to be considered a midfielder capable of consistency, but there were signs of ability and one of those Villa managers he has seen, Tim Sherwood, said Grealish “could be the hero” the club were waiting for.
What helped was that Grealish is a local, a fan and has a great-great-grandfather called Billy Garraty who played for Villa in the 1905 FA Cup final. Jack Grealish was a born Villain.
Growing appreciation morphed into something larger with his display in the FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool at Wembley. He became a national figure, or a dual national figure.
Less than six months later he was supposed to know where his international future lay. Grealish made his choice and cannot go back on it.
And then the frenzy died. Villa plummeted. He played 16 times in the Premier League relegation season – 16 defeats. That could disillusion a lad.
Gasping for breath in the Championship, last season he and Villa and finished 13th. Grealish was a long way from the limelight.
But, if Bruce is right, it may have done no harm. It’s the FA Cup again today, at home to Peterborough, another chance to get minutes in legs to add to those hours in the gym. Throw in some disappointment, discipline, time in the shade and they will all have contributed if the wanted boy Jack Grealish is about to expose our impatience and remind us what the fuss was about by turning into a man.
Coventry striker managed by United old boy could be bad news for Hughes
Marc McNulty has eight goals in his last nine appearances. Who?
Marc McNulty. He plays for Coventry City and by Saturday night, if we’re all suddenly familiar with him, it is likely to be bad news for Mark Hughes.
Hughes takes his faltering Stoke City to Coventry in the FA Cup and while that is not the test it would once have been – the Sky Blues are now in League Two – a striker in form is a striker in form.
McNulty, a 25-year-old Scot who began at Livingston, moved south to Sheffield United in 2014, signed by Nigel Clough. There was a nightclub incident in McNulty’s native Edinburgh and soon he was on loan at Portsmouth, then Bradford City. He joined Coventry last July on a free transfer.
McNulty’s manager at Coventry is Mark Robins, most famous for the Manchester United FA Cup goal he scored at Nottingham Forest in 1990. It was deemed to have kept Alex Ferguson in his job and is therefore known as one of the goals that changed history. Robins’ header came from a sublime cross by one Mark Hughes.