As football finally makes its way home and a number of Premier League clubs fill vacant manager positions, it feels like the transfer market will get going within the coming month. For Aston Villa, it has already gotten going, with the women’s side making six new signings this week for new coach, Clara Ward. The men’s team have secured their main target in Emi Buendia and a quality squad addition in Ashley Young, but two or three more signings are still to be expected in the coming weeks.
With the club preferring to do their business quietly, there has been little news on the incoming front since the last round-up, but the star of Villa’s current squad has been subject to a lot of speculation as the rest of the world finally wakes up to the talent that is Jack Grealish.
It was a pretty horrible Friday morning for many Villa fans when a report from the Daily Mail (since altered) and later, Talksport’s Jim White, broke in which claimed that Jack Grealish had agreed to join Manchester City for £100 million after the Euros. However, by the day’s end, not only was it clear that Grealish was still a Villa player, but he and his representatives were already in contract extension talks with Villa amid some genuine interest from City. Nevertheless, Villa warded off interest in Grealish just 12 months ago, with the player signing a new five-year deal — so what, if anything, has changed?
The first factor to consider is the buying club as David Ornstein of the Athletic touted last year that City were a more likely destination for Grealish when some online were still claiming he was a boyhood Manchester United fan. However, neither Manchester club moved for him, with City’s focus on supplementing their back line, as well as on a complex court case with UEFA over alleged financial fair play violations. 12 months later, City’s focus is on their attack, having lacked the punch to break Chelsea’s defense on three occasions; ultimately costing them the Champions League and FA Cup.
To address this, it appears City are making a change to their usual recruitment policy by looking at one or two high profile, ready-made players. The two in the cross-hairs seem to be Harry Kane, who would come in for the departed Sergio Aguero and now Jack Grealish.
Despite all of their attacking talent, City have lacked a magnetic ball carrier since the departure of David Silva. Both Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden have this ability, but neither is quite as eye catching or disruptive as Grealish can be on his day. De Bruyne, in particular, is now 30 years old and has become more injury prone as of late, so if played alongside Grealish in a three-man midfield — he may be asked to sit deeper in order to display his range of passing and underrated defensive abilities.
There are, however, reasons that a move for Grealish will be difficult on City’s end. While financial fair play is of little concern to the club these days, the 25-man squad limit is and there are already issues within the squad when it comes distributing game time to a number of players.
It has been reported that Grealish would not be interested in moving without assurances of game time, which would involve selling one or two currently unsettled players. This presents its own challenge as Sterling and Bernardo Silva, for example, are two players that have been reportedly put on City’s transfer list.
While the pandemic and financial fair play are of little concern to City, they do effect the buying market, particularly overseas. For a buying club, taking on Manchester City-sized wages before any transfer fees would further stress the limits of their wage bill, making sales unlikely.
A second challenge on City’s part is the price tag. City have never spent over £100 million on a single player and Grealish is an injury risk, having gone only one season out of the last four without some significant layoff, which would certainly make City hesitant on spending that amount. Additionally, it has been widely reported that a striker is City’s priority and that Kane is that target, who himself is worth well over £100 million to selling club Spurs — the possibility of both moving this summer seems remote at best.
From the Villa side, the move also looks unlikely as the selling price of £100 million touted in the media seems rather speculative, with no club sources ever suggesting a price — so the price could and probably would be significantly more.
Grealish is not only a valuable asset on the pitch, but his value to Villa’s brand is incalculable too. Like any star player, Grealish is used to sell merchandise, but his local fan story has an even larger effect. Villa’s marketing, both to fans and to potential sponsors, is based in part on local pride; just look at the banner placed on the facade of the North Stand.
The team is not only managed by a local fan in Dean Smith, but the best player and captain is also a local fan. That sort of genuine brand image is irreplaceable when considering selling Grealish and will play a large factor in contract talks.
This brings us to the news that the club had already been engaged in contract talks with Grealish’s agent before the City news broke. The news itself appears to have come out of these talks as Grealish’s agent has had previous contact with both Talksport and the Daily Mail, who were the first to come out with the exaggerated version of events last Friday. A later interview given by the agency to The Sun also fuels this line of thinking, declaring they have the ‘green light’ to sell him to City, which given the reports from those closer to Villa does not appear to be the case from their perspective.
Contract talks themselves are probably the result of Grealish’s increasing global profile. On the pitch, he has enjoyed his best year and is now a major talking point of England’s Euro 2020 success. Even outside of the England coverage, Grealish is a regular talking point on every Euros panel where England are mentioned.
Off the pitch is where he has really exploded though, featuring in an international Call of Duty advert, interacting and making appearances with social media influencers, and even being a recent topic for discussion in fashion magazine Vouge.
The world has finally woken up to what Villa fans already knew; Jack Grealish is a star. But with that comes star-level wage demands. Juventus do not pay Ronaldo over €500,000 a week to make three sprints a match and contribute little defensively — they pay him that because of his value to their brand, for the number of shirts he sells, and the amount of attention he brings the club in key international markets.
Grealish is becoming a player in a similar fashion for Villa; being invaluable to their brand. There is no available sales data on the number of England shirts sold ahead of the Euros with ‘Grealish 7’ on the back, nor ‘Grealish 10’ claret and blue jerseys sold in the club shop, but the number is probably considerable.
The club does have some advantage in contract talks though as Grealish’s own brand identity is also tied to Villa’s, with his thick Birmingham accent and status at his boyhood club conveying qualities that advertisers want to associate their brands with; that image has the potential to change should he leave. That and his affection for the club means that he is unlikely to down tools to force a move, leaving Villa with some cards to play in negotiations.
So, an increased wage contract and a significant agent’s fee appears to be the most likely solution for how this situation plays out. Nothing short of Grealish himself pushing to leave, something that would hit his own brand, would likely make Villa consider a sale.
Villa fell short of Europe last season, but this season they already look to be in a good position to give Grealish the platform for success in which he craves. It is only if Villa fall short again that a sale becomes likely.
City’s interest is genuine and the draw of league titles and Champions League football is significant; even enough to tempt a boyhood Villa fan away. However, Grealish did not leave when the club had just survived relegation and for the whole series of factors discussed above, he is unlikely to be off this summer.
Chances of Occurring: Same chance as walking away from a match and thinking “I’m so glad VAR is implemented.” - 2/10