Saturday 3 December 2016

The great Jack Grealish hypocrisy: Brian O'Driscoll's romantic notion is gone

High-profile critics of Villa teen judging by standards that former team-mates didn't meet

Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30

Jack Grealish gets away from Shane Long at St Mary's Stadium
Jack Grealish gets away from Shane Long at St Mary's Stadium
'The observations of the ex-Irish skippers have formed the acceptable face of Grealish criticism. Regrettably, the unacceptable faceless abuse aimed in the teenager’s direction would make you despair for humanity'
ack Grealish of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and West Ham United at Villa Park (Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)

Sitting in a Newstalk studio last Tuesday night, it was hard not to be stirred by Kenny Cunningham's passionate words on what it should mean to play international football.

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The subject, of course, was Jack Grealish's decision to reject Martin O'Neill's call-up, a stance which Cunningham considered to be unforgivable. There was heartfelt passion in his anger.

"You should only get one opportunity," he argued, asserting that O'Neill should move on without the Aston Villa star even if he came back with green cap in hand.

"That's a line in the sand," he continued. "You make a decision to play for your country with your heart, not with your head. It's not a decision based on logic.

"For me, it's a point of principle. I don't think we should hang around and wait fingers crossed and then throw our arms when he eventually decides 'Do you know what lads? I've decided to play for you.' We're too proud a football country to find ourselves in this position."

If only it were true.

Cunningham's words came from his heart, and they were met with widespread approval, yet it was possible to be moved by his sentiment and fundamentally disagree with his conclusion.

The unsympathetic view of Grealish's plight is at odds with the reality of our football culture given the manner in which FIFA's rules have made it increasingly normal for individuals with dual allegiance to prevaricate.

APPROVAL

Still, Cunningham's stance was duly given a royal stamp of approval by Brian O'Driscoll, who declared that the 'passion to play for your country should be in your DNA.'

This was notable because the patriotic pair - who have enjoyed the honour of captaining their country - both shared dressing-rooms with men who opted for green because their childhood dream was unattainable.

The IRFU have attracted criticism for using residency rules to strengthen their hand, even if that means selecting men with zero Irish heritage. There's even a name for them: 'project players.'

Richardt Strauss and Jared Payne were recruited from South Africa and New Zealand respectively for this very reason.

O'Driscoll, who has spoken about the nuances of lucrative punditry work, particularly when it comes to carefully choosing words about former team-mates, appears to have steered clear of this topic. Grealish is a different ball game, obviously.

Do we assume he feels that the spirited efforts of Payne, his replacement, lack a certain authenticity because of his Kiwi DNA and the simple truth that he qualifies by virtue of a calculated change of address?

What always happens in all codes is that successful converts earn the approval of peers by giving their all once they cross the white line; the journey is forgotten once they are fully committed at the destination.

Matt Holland will be remembered as an Irish World Cup goalscorer who wore the jersey with distinction, which is more important than the fact that he once belted out 'God Save The Queen' ahead of a play-off final while he was in the squad.

Holland has since admitted it was a mistake, yet all he was guilty of was expressing what he felt at that point in time.

The observations of the ex-Irish skippers have formed the acceptable face of Grealish criticism. Regrettably, the unacceptable faceless abuse aimed in the teenager's direction would make you despair for humanity.

Sure, if the Brummie does go on to declare for England, it will leave a slightly sour taste considering that he was well treated by the FAI and recently brought three generations of the family to Dublin to collect his U-21 award.

Senior members of the Irish camp do believe he is trying to draw Roy Hodgson out with stalling tactics, and it will hurt if that comes to pass. He has made mistakes in his balancing act.

However, it's unfair that he is being subjected to extra opprobrium because, unlike the vast majority of sportsmen we have snaffled by exploiting rules, he has a serious chance of a long career with his parent country. Essentially, his ability has created this rare dilemma.

Last week, Paul O'Connell offered his opinion on rugby's residency rules, and his observations made for interesting reading.

"I can understand why people would have an issue with it, with guys maybe taking an Irish player's place but as long as it is kept to a minimum and they are really top-class players and guys of top-class character, I don't have a problem with it," he said.

Grealish definitely looks to meet the top-class player criteria and his character has been endorsed by the Irish friends he has made in the under-age ranks. Ireland have perhaps made the mistake of going after too many sub-standard football recruits, but finds like the Villa star justify the trawl for a gem.

REGRET

His crime is to step back and think before taking an option that he could regret. We should remember he has turned down England before and may do so again now he's reached the final barrier.

Cunningham rightly pointed out that other members of the Irish dressing-room would be miffed by the fence-sitting, but one wonders if the next generation will be as strident.

The Irish U-17 side which took on England in the European Championships last Wednesday featured two players - Connor Ronan and Anthony Scully - who have been involved in the Three Lions set-up this year. Ronan, who shone in Bulgaria as a No 10, is Rochdale-born and a Rickie Lambert fan.

Arsenal's Danny Crowley could be the next big story, another exceptional talent from the English Midlands with an Irish background. Hodgson has gone to meet him already and the player is with England as it stands.

Last year, Crowley conducted an interview about his split loyalties while sitting next to his nephew who was wearing an Irish kit. His father still plays GAA for St Finbarrs in Coventry. Try telling him what his DNA says.

These cases will become more common unless FIFA limit flexibility, and it's deeply unfair to condemn kids in emotive situations if their heart is telling them to use their head and think it through. It won't diminish their legacy once they make a whole-hearted contribution for their choice.

Sure, ideally every Irish team would be made up entirely of boyhood fans but our complex history and competitive pragmatism has dictated otherwise since Shay Brennan was capped in 1965.

The romantic notion espoused by Cunningham and O'Driscoll is dead and gone. It has certainly never existed in Grealish's lifetime.

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