“Have I thought about lifting the trophy and getting back into the Premier League? What do you think? I dreamed about playing for this club. I was the kid at the side of the pitch before games watching everyone warm up. I was the kid who was waiting outside the ground for autographs. Honestly, I can’t put into words what it would mean” - Jack Grealish
On Monday the 27th May Jack Grealish will lead his boyhood club onto the hallowed Wembley turf seeking to vanquish the spectre of last season’s impotent failure at the same stage and secure his place in Villa folklore. Since his timely return from injury in February, only a philistine would understate the talismanic impact he has had on his team in propelling them up the table during an unprecedented 10 game winning streak. Before his return, Villa were a team fresh out of ideas, and with seemingly nothing left to play for. Indeed, as the players trundled off after that bracing defeat to WBA at Villa Park, all but the most optimistic of Villa fans had kissed goodbye to any hope of making the playoffs and, with it, their homegrown hero’s very future at the club was also surely in jeopardy.
Grealish, at least, had other ideas. He’s since spoken of his steely determination in the gym as he put everything he had into returning to the first team a stronger more influential player than before. Apparently, this didn’t go unnoticed by his manager either, with Dean Smith selecting him as his new captain ahead of his return at home to Derby County. As if it were written in the stars above, with Grealish back pulling the strings, Villa were instantly brimming with confidence all over the pitch and demonstrating the kind of invention on the ball that was sadly lacking during the marked decline of the club since Martin O’Neill’s departure some 10 seasons ago. Jack’s maestro performance was capped with a stunning volley and culminated with his 65-minute substitution to rapturous applause from the home fans. And why not - the game was already won 4-0 and it seemed for all the world like Grealish hadn’t even moved out of 2nd gear.
What followed a week later at St. Andrews would prove to be even more edifying. Much has been written already about the unsavoury incident at the beginning of that match with Birmingham City and there’s nothing new I could add in this forum. Notwithstanding, the maturity displayed by Grealish that day was quite remarkable. While all around him were losing their heads, he shrugged it all off with ease as he carried the weight of expectation in the face of genuine animosity to score the winner and lay the foundations for the 10-match winning run to come. On reflection, it feels oddly appropriate that such a telling event centred around Jack Grealish for whom box office has become his stock in trade.
We should really acknowledge just how far Jack has come in his first 5 years as a professional. A teenage prodigy with a reputation that preceded him (he was fouled 9 times during his 5-minute Premier League debut against Hull City), he has always been a master manipulator of both ball and man and it has set him apart from his peers at every age group. His talents were refined during a successful loan spell at Notts County where he learned exactly what it takes to win a game of football. Clearly, though, his dreams lay with Villa and, despite a head-turning performance against Liverpool in the Semi-final of the FA Cup in 2015, his overall time with the club has been bittersweet thus far. Neither club nor man wishes to be operating in the second tier of English football and there has been a lingering sense of frustration ever since. Sure, there have been regular reminders of his genius; such as his thrilling solo effort against Rotherham in April or his decisive display over the Playoff Semi-final with WBA, but ultimately it is lamentable that Villa and Grealish remain cut adrift from the Big Time™.
Of course, the constant backdrop to his career to date has been a degree of media scrutiny rarely, if ever, afforded to a player outside the top 6 of the Premier League. First came his youthful indiscretion while holidaying with friends in Tenerife, which was swiftly followed by the hippy crack fiasco. Then, infamously, he elected to switch international allegiance from his ancestral Irish background to that of his birth, England. Such affairs, along with his characteristic Peaky Blinders haircut and rolled down socks paired with his insouciant style on the pitch have made him a target for media and rival fans alike. Despite all this, there is an overriding perception that Grealish actively revels in the attention and, far from hindering his performance these days, it fuels his every move.
Away from the media circus, Grealish is largely uncredited for his generosity off the pitch. He’s from a close family, is extremely obliging to fans and is among the most charitable members of the first team going to great lengths to engage with the community. Irrespective of what opposition fans think of him (at the time of writing he has never received a single caution for diving), he has risen to every challenge presented to him and has grown into the captaincy in a manner befitting a player many years his senior. Ask any young Villa fan to tell you his or her hero and I can virtually guarantee you that it will be Super Jack Grealish whose name adorns the back of their shirt.
So, as the playoff final beckons, we look to our difference maker once more and ask him to dig deep for his club. One imagines he still hurts from the fruitless final of 2018 in which he was arguably the only player in claret and blue that day who couldn’t have given more than he did. The hope this year is that a cast of worthy comrades in Mings, Abraham, McGinn et al can finally assist him in delivering Aston Villa Football Club to a stage befitting of his mercurial talent and enable him to flourish for club and country in the years to come. I don’t personally believe in destiny so what will be will be. Regardless of what does happen, I for one am glad to have witnessed his development as a man and I will follow his progress keenly wherever that may be.
By Liam Mooney