Dion Fanning: If Jack Grealish ends up playing for England, he loses none of his Irish heritage
Published 26/04/2015 | 15:02
On the day he was unveiled as Ireland's new manager, Martin O'Neill spoke enthusiastically about the efforts he would be making to improve the squad he was about to work with.
After the Trapattoni era, when the manager had to be encouraged by the FAI to attend matches in England, O'Neill would go to matches in Ireland in case he spotted a player that had been overlooked by English clubs. He had already talked to the underage coaches, who told him of some promising 16-year-olds - "a fat lot of good that is to me" - and he would explore the ancestry rule.
He explained his approach to that rule with a joke and then, in characteristic style, explained that the joke was a joke. "Jack Charlton went back to someone sharing a drink with someone, you know, and it didn't do him any harm at all. Again, he's a big, big figure, did a fantastic job. It didn't worry Jack. To a certain extent, I was just having a bit of a joke there. I will have a look at it to see. You wouldn't really want to be picking someone who was just tenuous, but I think the rules now are more clear than perhaps they were under Jack's time. It's something I would certainly look at."
A few months later, after the manager and his assistant, Roy Keane, had watched more than 50 games between them, O'Neill returned to give a bleak assessment of what he had seen.
"In the back of my mind, I thought, 'There must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through' - and that may be the case. But at this minute, I haven't spotted it. Maybe I'm in the wrong place. I've got other people out looking, but I haven't seen it. There are one or two exceptions, who at this moment, through the eligibility rule, have not declared themselves, but outside of that, no, I haven't seen it."
O'Neill was asked how Roy Keane viewed the situation. "He would have the same sort of frustrations about the lack of young talent coming through."
Ten days ago, Martin O'Neill was in Dublin to launch the FAI Summer Soccer Schools and he returned to the subject that has become something of a sub-plot during his strangely uninspiring time as Ireland's manager: the search for young and exciting talent to strengthen his squad.
If there were players out there who would benefit from his noted powers of persuasion then he wouldn't hesitate to use them.
When O'Neill talked at his unveiling in November 2013, there was one young talent coming through that didn't fall into the categories he had mentioned. Three months before O'Neill was appointed, Jack Grealish became the youngest player to be capped during Noel King's time as under 21 manager. Thanks to the work of the FAI scout Mark O'Toole, Grealish was already part of what some like to call the Irish football family.
At the beginning of the 2013/'14 season, Grealish embarked on a loan spell at Notts County just after he had turned 18. Those who watched him leave at Villa and saw him return noticed the difference when he came back.
During Grealish's loan spell at Notts County, O'Neill watched him play once when the teenager was a second-half substitute at Brentford. At the end of last season, Ireland went to the US for some end-of-season friendlies. Grealish is a player who would have enjoyed a place on this trip and Ireland would have benefited too. This meander would have had real meaning if it had brought Grealish closer to the senior team. Playing in friendly games wouldn't have qualified Grealish, but he would have been unlikely to see his future elsewhere had he been integrated into the senior squad at that time.
At Notts County, Grealish was playing in League One, where there was no room for indulgence. He was playing what one observer called "men's football". When he returned to Aston Villa, he was ready, or at least he thought he was.
Grealish expected much from this season, but under the atrophying last days of Paul Lambert, he never got that chance.
Lambert was determined to be patient. Grealish wouldn't be rushed, he said, employing a circular logic which said he wouldn't ask too much from a player who had yet to start a Premier League game, even though it was Lambert's call when he could start a Premier League game. Tim Sherwood rectified that mistake and Grealish has demonstrated at Wembley and at the Etihad last night the folly in ignoring him.
Last week in Dublin, when O'Neill gave the impression that Grealish hadn't progressed as much as he would like, he seemed determined to follow Lambert's lead.
"This time last year, when I was having conversations with him and his father, I bet you he probably thought he was going to start between 15 and 22 games for Villa. And you know what? He hasn't."
When O'Neill met Grealish and his father, Kevin, at the beginning of the season, there is no question that Ireland's manager said all the right things and they included an invitation for Grealish to train with the senior team. Roy Keane was also present. His arrival at Villa and his quick appreciation of Grealish's gifts are believed to have given greater impetus to the Irish management's efforts.
By that point, Grealish had other objectives and O'Neill and Keane had no choice but to wait. But Ireland's hesitation before that may be costly as the player now has options and his other choices look more appealing.
There was a time when playing for Ireland would benefit a player's club career, but that time is no longer. Some of those who gave the most during the Jack Charlton era moved to big clubs and prospered because of what they were doing internationally.
Grealish has promised to return to the Irish football family in September and resume his career with the Ireland under 21s. This would be welcomed by O'Neill, but it wouldn't mean he was now committed to Ireland.
Grealish is unlikely to accept any invitation to play for England under 21s as that would commit him to the country of his birth as a player is only allowed one change of association.
Grealish's performance at the Etihad last night suggests he is going to seize the opportunity Sherwood has given him. After his display at Wembley, it was another indication that he is moving beyond Ireland's grasp and Roy Hodgson could be tempted to call him into a senior squad early next season.
In the past, Ireland have persuaded high-profile underage players to make the switch, so they shouldn't be surprised if it happens in reverse. Grealish's clubmate, Ciaran Clark, captained the England under 19 side until a conversation with Richard Dunne revealed that Clark had Irish parents and he would love the opportunity to play for Ireland.
There was plenty of outrage in Ireland last week over a column which said the ancestry rule should be abolished and a UEFA committee should rule on the complicated matter of identity.
Identity plays some part in a sportsman's decision, but it is not everything. If Grealish ends up playing for England, he loses none of his Irish heritage and if he sticks with Ireland, his Englishness, growing up in Solihull to English parents, is not diminished.
Players have always had different reasons for playing international football, some professional, some personal and a country like Ireland can always point to the history of emigration as a moral trump card if they are accused of opportunism. The FAI has taken advantage of those rules over the years, but they wouldn't have had such rich pickings were it not for Ireland's story of emigration.
Some of those most angered by the Daily Mail article would be those who would demand that an English-born player who declared for Ireland should show passion and "want to play for his country", whatever that means.
Grealish's abundant talent has ensured that nobody will make those kind of tub-thumping demands of him just yet. Irish supporters want Grealish to declare for the country of his grandparents and they are prepared to get misty-eyed about the diaspora if it helps their moral case.
Grealish is a 19-year-old with little to get misty-eyed about. His performance at Wembley revealed a footballer of rare ability and O'Neill may be regretting his comments 10 days ago and perhaps he now feels differently. One Irish international watched Grealish last Sunday and afterwards remarked, "I didn't know he was that good."
Grealish may yet appear for the country he has represented at underage level and Ireland's best hope could be if Hodgson waits for the player to make a firm declaration as he, too, can be a traditionalist.
O'Neill, too, looked trapped in a time warp last weekend. He arrived promising an exhaustive search for players who could make Ireland a better side. Maybe he was simply in the wrong place all that time, but when Jack Grealish announced himself at Wembley and grabbed the attention of the land of his birth, it seemed that the pearl richer than all his tribe had been lost.
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