Jack Grealish shows composure beyond his years in FA Cup semi-final
Winger’s performance should put him in the frame for Ireland’s game against Scotland
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish looks to evade Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel and Emre Can during an impressive display in the FA Cup sem-final. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Xavi Hernandez is one of those players of whom people say: he makes the game look easy. He’s also the first one to argue that it’s not really like that.
A couple of days before the 2010 World Cup final, Xavi got annoyed when journalists complained that Spain hadn’t won any knockout game by more than one goal.
“Do you not realise how hard it is? Teams aren’t stupid. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn’t a single metre, not a second on the pitch.
“Everywhere you turn there is a wall . . . I watch replays of games all the time . . . I read what people write and I think I was watching a different game.”
Xavi’s description of the claustrophobic conditions of modern football came to mind as Aston Villa beat Liverpool in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final. If the game no longer gives you a metre or a second, how is it that nobody can get within five yards of Jack Grealish?
In the move that led to Villa’s first goal, Grealish was on the ball for five seconds. There was a lot to admire in a short space of time. He started by finding space on the left to receive a pass from Fabian Delph, then set off on a dribble that curved towards the heart of Liverpool’s defence.
Christian Benteke was screaming for the ball to his right, but Grealish ignored him. Running with his head up, he could see Liverpool’s three centre backs were bunching in the centre, and as his run took him from left to right at something less than three-quarters pace, he knew a space was opening up ahead and to the left. He also knew Delph was racing into that space and he understood that his task was to delay the pass long enough for Delph to get there. Grealish timed the pass to perfection and Delph’s first-time cross was swept into the net by Benteke.
The second goal displayed some of the same qualities – touch, balance, awareness, patience, timing, accuracy.
Benteke chased the ball down on Villa’s left flank and knocked it back to Grealish, raiding behind Liverpool’s midfield. This time he had the ball for two seconds and four touches: the first to control, the second and third to veer right and lure Martin Skrtel towards him, and the fourth to play the assist to Delph, through the space Skrtel had just vacated.
For a 19-year-old who has never completed 90 minutes at senior level for Villa Grealish was displaying a remarkable degree of composure. Young players often struggle to cope with the pace of the game, and here he was dictating it.
Most teenagers have speed and energy and enthusiasm and an eagerness to do everything at top speed. Not many have the insight to delay a fraction of a second and do it at the right speed.
As Grealish left the field with a few minutes to go, having completed 48 of 52 passes, you wondered what Martin O’Neill was thinking. The Ireland manager had suggested, in remarks published on the morning of the game, that the upcoming qualifier against Scotland would be too hot for Grealish to handle.
“The game against Scotland is too big . . . to throw him into a game like that would be tough. You’re talking about guys eight or nine years older will be nervous going into the Scotland game,” O’Neill told the Sunday Independent.
At Wembley, the victorious Villa manager Tim Sherwood expressed diametrically opposed views.
“The bigger the stage, the better he plays, he relishes it, that’s the sign of a good talent,” Sherwood said. “Jack’s someone I’ve looked at before I was at the club. When I see him in training and give him instruction, he sticks to the plan. He’s got a big future at the football club.”
Sherwood has also suggested that Grealish will one day be a star for England. The player said last month that he will “hopefully” confirm his availability for the Republic of Ireland soon. But that was before he delivered an outstanding Wembley performance before a 90,000 crowd including most of the top brass of English football. If he does decide to declare for England, O’Neill will face awkward questions about whether he could have done more to secure the player’s future for Ireland.
Lost his temper
O’Neill has seen a lot of hyped young players come and go. He sometimes seems wearied by questions on Grealish. He’s never lost his temper, as Don Givens once did when asked why he hadn’t called up Stephen Ireland for the 2008 friendly against Brazil – “I’m not going to drive up to Manchester and be humiliated by someone like that!” – but he plainly feels it’s not his job to cajole people into playing for Ireland. He thinks they should do it because they want to do it.
You wonder, though, whether he’s now reconsidering his view that the Scotland match is too much too soon for Grealish.
“I bet he probably thought he’d have started more often [for Villa] than he has this season,” O’Neill had told the Sunday papers. “I bet he’d have thought ‘you know what, I bet I’ll start between 15 and 22 games.’ And you know what? He hasn’t.”
You can’t dispute O’Neill’s figures. But leaving Grealish out was Paul Lambert’s call. The player’s performances for Tim Sherwood suggest Lambert was wrong.
Why should Ireland make the same mistake?