Whatever happened to Jack Grealish? He must be sorry he said no to Irish advances
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
As Martin O'Neill admitted last week, this round of international friendlies is as much about gearing up for life after Euro 2016 as it is for preparing for the tournament itself, so it would be worth paying a euro for Jack Grealish's thoughts.
It is less than 12 months since Grealish was the subject of a tug-of-war between Ireland, the country he had represented since he was 14, and England, the country of his birth.
The Aston Villa player eventually - after more than a year of crude delaying tactics and having publicly rejected a call-up to play for Ireland's senior team - declared to play for England last September.
That decision, made with the help of some advice from his agent, Jonathan Barnett, and his then club manager, Tim Sherwood, looks increasingly misguided.
Grealish (20) has not even been picked for a squad, let alone made an appearance in an England shirt.
Had Grealish remained loyal to Ireland, he would have been playing for the senior team, would already have several international caps and would probably be part of the squad for this summer's Euros.
And, more importantly, he would be the centrepiece of O'Neill's planning for the future and could have had a team built around him.
However, having turned his back on the emerald jersey, Grealish is now in the international wilderness and heading out of the Premier League.
He is unlikely to get anywhere near the England squad for the foreseeable future.
Although England manager, Roy Hodgson, who intervened to help persuade Grealish to switch international allegiance, has little use for a player who will be performing in the Championship next season with Villa, Ireland would have cherished him.
O'Neill is trying to bring through the next generation of Irish players and allowed Manchester City's Jack Byrne to train with the senior team last week, before sending him back to the under-21s to play in a 4-1 defeat by Italy last Thursday.
Byrne has replaced Grealish as Ireland's most exciting young talent, and the speed of the 19-year-old's development has accelerated following a season on loan at SC Cambuur in Holland.
There was also a hugely encouraging performance from Blackburn Rovers defender Shane Duffy in Ireland's 1-0 win over Switzerland on Good Friday.
Six years after switching his allegiance from Northern Ireland to the Republic, the former Everton prospect is emerging as the natural successor to Sunderland's John O'Shea at centre-back.
O'Neill, though, is concerned about the lack of young Irish players emerging at Premier League clubs. Indeed, it could be a potential deal-breaker as he and Roy Keane weigh up whether to extend their contracts to take charge of a World Cup qualifying campaign.
"It is very important we start to build for the future, not just the Euros," said O'Neill, after the victory over Switzerland.
"Players like Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark are the future. But I went down to the U-21 game on Friday and the side has a lot to do, individually and collectively.
"They have to make an impression. Overall, it is the quality of the individual performances I'm looking at in the U-21s - but they have some work to do," he added, with sufficient brevity to suggest alarm lay behind his beady eyes.
Few truths hurt more than home ones, so Ireland's U-21s will be determined to answer O'Neill's damning assessment when they take on Slovenia in Koper today (kick-off 5.0 Irish time).
The Irish were realistically never expected to challenge Italy for top spot in Group 2 of the UEFA Championship qualifiers, and so will be measured by their displays and results in the final four games of the campaign against Slovenia and Serbia, home and away.
Second place, and a potential play-off route into next year's finals, is still attainable if three points are accrued today.
Manager Noel King wasn't so defeatist yesterday, preferring to highlight Italy's clinical superiority in explaining the one-sided nature of last Friday's match.
Still, Ireland meet an impressive Slovenian side today aiming to arrest a three-game losing streak that includes a defeat in Lithuania last November that King described as the "worst result" of his 30 years in management.
King will be six years in the U-21 job in July and could justifiably take pride in seeing some of his former charges, such as Eunan O'Kane and Shane Duffy, take baby steps in their senior international careers against Switzerland.
Unlike his predecessor, Don Givens, however, King doesn't allow the volume of graduates into the full squad to take precedence over the results from the current crop in the appraisal of his job.
"I've never gone into a game just saying we're here to develop players - we also want to develop a winning mentality, and you do that by winning," he insisted.
"We've had a good success rate of players going on to the senior squad and we'd like to continue that. It's also important for the country that we do win games and keep seedings up - and win whenever we possibly can.
"There are players who've come through the process. How much influence you have on that I really cannot say.
"Sometimes you may convince them to come on board for Ireland, sometimes they may have come through on their own anyway.
Dylan Connolly (Bray Wanderers) and uncapped Connor Dimaio (Chesterfield) have been called up to replace Glen Rea and Brandon Miele, neither of whom travelled.
IRELAND (probable) - I Lawlor (Manchester City), B Lenihan (Hull City), S Hoare (St Patrick's Ath), N Keown (Reading), J Connors (Dagenham), D Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), Connor Dimaio (Chesterfield), D Connolly (Bray Wanderers), J Byrne (SC Cambuur), C O'Dowda (Oxford United), S Maguire (Cork City).