Daniel McDonnell: Jack Grealish’s Wembley dream turns sour as classy Arsenal teach him a lesson
THE honour of the first touch in this FA Cup final was afforded to a 19-year-old who spent most of last season dodging tackles in League One. For Jack Grealish, an afternoon that promised so much went rapidly downhill from there.
In the aftermath of the semi final win at Wembley, the youngster announced himself to the English football world and enjoyed an avalanche of adulation. He will learn the other side of this unforgiving profession now, with his performance offering the punchline for predictable quips that his big match flop will accelerate the chances of his international future lying with Ireland.
This is all part of life in the spotlight. Grealish’s ascension was prominent in the Aston Villa story during the build-up with his father, Kevin, a multi-platform media presence. His mother and grandfather were also interviewed by BBC on Wembley Way as the British media honed in on a potential fairytale story, the lifelong Villa fan realising his dream. All too good to be true.
In time, Grealish and his family will reflect on the 2014/15 campaign with pride, a season where he grew from a kid who had shown promise on loan at Notts County to a creative talent with the ability to hurt Premier League opponents and create an international tug of war in the process.
The trust that Tim Sherwood has placed in his protege was illustrated by the fact that he resisted the obvious temptation to substitute him when Per Mertesacker headed Arsenal three goals ahead on the hour mark to end this game as a contest.
Instead, he kept Grealish on the pitch, presumably to learn more from an experience that should aid his development in the long run if he responds in the right way. As the game opened up, it gave the frustrated kid more touches on the ball in an attempt to salvage some personal pride from a one sided contest.
This was a schooling, though, a lesson at the hands of a focused Arsenal unit that shed their flaky reputation to deliver a polished, professional display that highlighted the gulf in class between these protagonists that the final league table suggested - a full 37 points between third spot and seventeenth.
Liverpool gave Grealish free rein in the penultimate round and he punished them, dropping into pockets and threading through balls into the space that was available to runners from midfield.
There would be no such generosity from Arsenal. Hector Bellerin, Grealish’s direct opponent, is just six months older and the right back has also turned heads this term. He is quick and persistent, with a desire to get forward that tested the playmaker’s defensive aptitude. It meant he spent the majority of the first half facing towards his own goal.
With Bellerin tracking his every move, he attempted to drift inside but found that Francis Coquelin was always there to cut him off at the pass. It sapped his confidence as simple passes were fluffed and the assurance that has defined his rise was absent. On social media channels, the Irish jokes stacked up.
When Theo Walcott smashed the opening goal past Shay Given, Fabian Delph trotted towards his pal to offer encouragement. But a subsequent mix-up with Charles N’Zogbia led to a strop from both parties that demonstrated Villa spirit was broken by the manner in which the occasion was slipping away from them.
After the resumption, Grealish tried to inject energy into his performance from a central berth, yet it didn’t get any easier. Coquelin and Santi Cazorla closed every avenue and the superior attacking strength of Arsene Wenger’s charges came to the fore. Given was powerless to prevent a painful four goal drubbing.
In the dying stages, Grealish did stretch his legs for a burst into the Arsenal box that culminated in a penalty shout that fell on deaf ears. He smacked the ground in frustration and, at the final whistle, sunk to his knees with his head in his hands. For this evening, at least, Wembley didn’t feel like home.