"Jack is back." That's all it took for Rémi Garde to end Jack Grealish's exile to the U21 training squad that began after he was caught out partying again.
And it's good news. Jack Grealish has had a season to forget thus far, but he is hardly the only one wearing claret and blue who can say the same thing. The twenty-year-old is still one of the most promising players that Rémi Garde has to choose from each week, and given the dismal performances from others, he at least merits a regular selection in the matchday eighteen.
But the time off was probably needed. Jack needed to settle a bit after some great performances in the waning months of last season inflated his hype and made us all start thinking that he could single-handedly save the club. We forgot, however, just how young and inexperienced he is. And we forgot, too, that he's still a kid. There was the faux-outrage after someone reportedly snapped him passed out after a bit too much to drink this summer, and a reprise of the self-important chorus after his latest spat of partying in Manchester.
Should Jack have been out partying so much? Should he be associating with people who would go out partying with him and then take advantage of him by sending pictures to the press? The answer to both might be no. (I'm not convinced that it is. If he can party and still perform on the pitch, I certainly don't care. And there is no indication that his lacklustre performance this season is anything other than a come-down from last year's high that's attributable to age and experience.)
How is Jack to really know that, though? Again, he's twenty. Get mad all you want, but stop for a moment and think back to when you were twenty. I'm willing to bet that you were an idiot. I know that I certainly was, and most people I knew at the time were as well, at least in retrospect. Sure, we all felt cool and perfectly responsible at the time, but now we all know better.
So Jack is already in that spot and yet has the weight of the expectations of wiser, older, and more responsible fans on his shoulders. But remember, while Jack actually is twenty, he probably is nowhere near that on a social level. He joined Aston Villa when he was six.
It's worth getting that in your head, so here it is again: Grealish joined Aston Villa when he was six.
Since then his life has been football. He was an unused substitute in a Premier League match against Chelsea when he was sixteen. He made his Premier League debut when he was eighteen. He was a regular at nineteen. In order to be good enough to be a regular member of one of the top teams in England (a league that is itself one of the best in the world) at nineteen, you have to have forsaken a significant part of your life. Those normal experiences we all had when we were teenagers? Jack was busy winning the NextGen Series. Hanging out with friends? Sure, so long as your friends are Premier League players with more money than God. A nice relaxing night playing FIFA? Probably a bit different when you can take control of yourself.
Jack is probably not as good yet as we all thought, but there is no questioning that he is in the very upper echelons of skill in terms of footballers in the world. To get there he let go of some of the experiences that made us the wiser, smarter, and more responsible adults capable of critiquing his lifestyle.
And that's a problem in football. We churn out players from a young age. The vast majority burn out, and a few make it. All are raised in a world that is entirely different from the one in which you and I were raised. One that is, largely, insulated from reality. We're raising boys and men who are extraordinarily talented at football and probably horribly adjusted at the rest of the things that life demands.
It's a problem that likely doesn't have a solution. The system isn't one that's necessarily bad and in order to keep making money, it will likely have to continue this way. To fix it, we'd have to let players grow up like normal people and THEN play football. That leads to a league for 40-somethings and nobody wants to watch that. And to be fair, the players get money, fame, accommodations, and all of the training they need for their football careers.
So the issues that plague Grealish and countless other young players are ones without solution, and they're ones in which no party is necessarily "wrong." But they are issues that we should be aware of when discussing the lifestyles of the footballers we love so much. Their world is different from our, and to judge them by our standards is crazy. Sure, a few will meet our expectations, but that's above and beyond what we should be able to expect.
Jack Grealish is back with Aston Villa's senior squad, and that's good for the club. In the coming weeks and months, he will probably make some more stupid mistakes. He will let us down both on and off the pitch. But he will also be incredible at times. He'll give us hope as fans of Aston Villa, and he'll wow us with his sheer athletic ability. And that's the trade-off that we've all come to accept. We shouldn't condemn players for failing to uphold a part of the bargain that they're woefully unequipped to uphold. Enjoy what we've got and realize that there are, indeed, trade-offs required to get it.