There is a crystal-clear clarity to the solitary moment when you bear witness to greatness. When something monumental happens. A changing-of-the-guard. No doubt, we’ve all been there. These moments might be political, or historic. They might happen in the lighter arenas of sport. In footballing terms, it could be a goal, a do-or-die performance, a debut of tremendous bravado, or when finally it seems like promise has been fulfilled. To put it simply, there is always going to be a single moment where we can look back to as, not the beginning, but the pivotal moment. The seconds that changed everything. Sometimes, it may not even be a singular moment, but a string of seemingly un-related events that forged the chains of progress (in one way or another) to install a new order, or enforce a new reality.
When we focus on Aston Villa, it is now abundantly clear that we are rooted within the era of Jack Grealish. A single player, who is now defining his football, and the club he plays for with flourishes of brilliance and moments of physics-defying, game-changing ability.
It hasn’t always been this way though, but focusing on the past is nothing if not an exercise in pointlessness. What’s done is done, and is almost worthless in the currency of time. Still, it’s being a long journey to the top for Jack Grealish.
Where did it all begin for Grealish? Well - somewhere in Birmingham. In one of the many suburbs or estates dotted around the concentric and concrete circles of England’s Second City, he’d be no different from the many young young footballers who are processed by footballing academies in the West Midlands, desperate to succeed and make the grade away from headers and volleys down the rec. Where players (many talented) fall out, with dreams dashed and hopes torn asunder due to their ill fit in the system’s rigid template of success, or the opposite, where promising talents knuckle down and conform. Grealish, as a young player, would fall somewhere between. Acknowledging that, yes, he must conform to be granted access to the higher levels of the Aston Villa academy, but no, he won’t stop paying attention to his hair, that no, he will not tuck his shirt in, and that no, he won’t pull his socks up. There has always been a rebel with cause within Jack Grealish.
While this may be best demonstrated in subject matter that we have yet to breach thus far, Grealish’s flirtation with both the youth setup of Ireland, and the youth setup of England is a case in point. Jack Grealish’s identity as been a point of discussion for many a person outside of the Grealish family. The young Villan grew up playing Gaelic Football within his community, a development which has a clear influence on his commanding playing style. Aston Villa eventually ordered him to call time on his Gaelic career, fearing that the rough and tumble featured in the Celtic rulebook of the sport would scupper any chance that he had of making the grade at Villa. Certainly, you can see why Jack Grealish felt bonded to Ireland, despite being an Englishman. It’s clear, to anyone, why he would progress with the Ireland setup, he even rejected England’s early advances to grow up with the Ireland youth team.
Despite the clarity provided by Grealish’s Gaelic origins in sport, there should be just as much scope for understanding his decision to move over to the England setup, a decision which Jack made in 2015. While Jack certainly has an Irish background, played Irish sport and absolutely indulged in Irish traditions (as many large families with Irish descent do, subliminally or not), he was born in England, and when Aston Villa chose to sever one of Grealish’s main connections with his ancestral homeland, it seemed that the club had pretty much made that choice for him. Grealish’s only connection with Ireland, outside of his family and his call-ups to the Ireland U21 side, would be the presence of Irishmen in the Villa squad, and Roy Keane. Growing up, with the perspective that only ageing can provide, Grealish turned his back on Ireland and pinned his colours to the England wall. England is a country full of families with split origins, with roots that connect the world - so asking a young man to make a single binary decision on his identity would no doubt be difficult. It was a decision that Jack was mocked for, but it’s still a decision that may bear fruit for the him in the near future.
That’s not the only difficult choice prescribed to Jack Grealish, though - far from it. Consider the weight of the above choice, but combined with other pressures. The pressures of ‘you must be different, Jack’, the pressures of ‘want to come out tonight, Jack?’, the pressures of ‘I’ve not heard off you in a while mate, but we’re going to the pub, want to come?’. In Grealish, we have a young man not only forced to choose his identity, but a young man forced to choose his future, his friends, life, money - all of it - in small instances. A true pick-and-mix from the fates, with only judgement to go around.
Grealish is open and honest about his mistakes, but in truth, the only ‘mistake’ that he ever made was being young and being adored. There are infamous photos, notorious news stories, and plenty of tabloid speculation, but, if we are to look inside ourselves, did Grealish perform anything that we ourselves would not do? We, ourselves, who are a man-with-no-name trigger fingers when it comes to pistoling out pellets of judgement? Perhaps not, but it was Grealish above all who had to atone for being young as he hit the early heights of fame.
Those initial plaudits were well-earned. Grealish, having waited for his chance patiently, having shone in the lower leagues of English football via a loan spell at Notts County, rose to the occasion when called upon. A dazzling display against Hull City saw yellow cards pulled into the air, and left bodies on the floor. A showcase of his talent against Liverpool in an FA Cup Semi-Final sprayed his image across the back pages of the nation’s publications. None of this was accidental, it was all earned, through sweat, through aching pains, through blood, injuries and through difficult choices.
Those plaudits? They would be short-lived.
Aston Villa embarked on a doomed campaign. Nobody was going to save the team and that was seen from the moment Villa turned a 2-0 lead thanks to Grealish’s first senior goal for the club, into a 3-2 defeat against Leicester City. The club lacked answers to the remorseless beatings they took across the country, from the former potteries, industrial estates, the capital and the coast. Despite his talents, he was simply Ishmael, bearing witness to nothing more than a destructive season of football that only left despair and anger in its wake. Grealish? Many fans wouldn’t hear of him. Villa had earned a season, or more, in the Championship.
Life in the Championship wasn’t easy. Despite the fact that Grealish started with a slaloming solo run to bag a goal in front of the Holte End against Rotherham, he started plenty of games from the bench. He did grab goals and assists to please the numbers board, but in terms of performances - there was always so much more he could offer. In Villa’s miraculous survival two seasons prior, Tim Sherwood, Villa’s boss at the time, defined a player like Carles Gil as a ‘champagne player’. Grealish fit that criteria in Villa’s debut season in the Championship. A player who didn’t lack for grace or composure, but a player who finished off moves, rather than constructing them. It was a much needed grounding period for Grealish.
Under Steve Bruce, ahead of this current season, a minor rebuild of the AVFC squad was to take place, with Jack as the focus. Fate would have it though, that Grealish would not see the pitch until early December, after being hospitalised with a severe kidney injury picked up in Villa’s final pre-season friendly. Villa held strong without Grealish, and found themselves in serviceable position for his return. This slight brush with his own vulnerability, and perhaps mortality, rubbed off on Grealish who took to the pitch with vigour, determination and meaning. The player inside Grealish, at this point, had largely been written off. While there was some small hope that he would ascend, the clock had not stopped ticking since his coming-out against Liverpool in 2015.
On the turn of the New Year, 2018, Jack took the game to Bristol City in a matchup that left their season fragmented. He showed Wolverhampton that they were not untouchable, he told Cardiff that he could not be bullied from games. Time and time again, Grealish didn’t just start for Villa but he dictated entire scorelines, picking up Sky Sports awards post-match time and time again, his left foot a scalpel and the pitch his operating table. Thoughts of an England call-up were at first a novelty, before coming a minor possibility, before transforming into a seemingly foregone conclusion.
With that, we arrive at the present day. Grealish, a player with more than one trick up his sleeve, be it neat one-twos with Joshua Onomah, slicing the ball in for a rushing winger, hitting stunning volleys, placing the ball into the net or surging through the middle of the pitch, an immortal phantasm to anyone stepping up to challenge.
While there are many moments that define Jack Grealish, perhaps the most recent will be the cap to an old and desperate era of dreaming and hoping. With Grealish picking up the ball in his own half and galloping past untidy challenges, it was simple and effective and while no goal came from it - it didn’t need to. It is worth mentioning that despite missing a chunk of the season due to injury, this could perhaps be defined as Grealish’s first true season at Aston Villa. No fits-and-starts, no rebellion, no self-caused disruption. Just him, the pitch and the ball.
If we consider this the start, then what do we have to look forward to in the future? The Jack Grealish era at Aston Villa has just begun, and the biggest stage at this level awaits. Come what may, he has finally blossomed.