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Monday 23 January 2017

John Fallon: Martin O'Neill's handling of Jack Grealish saga leaves a lot to be desired

John Fallon

Published 20/04/2015 | 13:38

Aston Villa's English midfielder Jack Grealish celebrates Villa's second goal during the FA Cup semi-final between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Wembley stadium yesterday
Aston Villa's English midfielder Jack Grealish celebrates Villa's second goal during the FA Cup semi-final between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Wembley stadium yesterday

So now the genius is out of the bottle and Jack Grealish’s profile is snowballing cross-channel, another sub-plot emerges to consume the build-up to Ireland’s friendly against England in six weeks time.

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If Martin O’Neill feels the bombardment of questions on the Aston Villa winger’s international future over the past eight months have become “tiresome”, then contagion will soon spread to his counterpart, Roy Hodgson, such has been the hype engulfing the English media following the teen’s stunning Wembley display on Sunday.

Grealish is a big-game player.

O’Neill made it clear in the run-up to the FA Cup semi-final that he doesn’t think the 19-year-old is ready to cope with the task of perforating a Scotland rearguard marshalled by Championship centre-back duo Russell Martin and Gordon Greer in front of 50,000 fans in Dublin on June 13.

“The game (against Scotland) is too big, it’s massive,” said O’Neill of the Euro 2016 qualifier.

“I’m not going to change my mind on my stance — well stance is too strong a word — but to throw him into a game like that would be tough. You’re talking about guys eight or nine years older will be nervous going into the Scotland game.”

Within the last 24 hours, Grealish not only flourished in the cauldron of a 90,000 capacity crowd but also had Liverpool’s defensive axis of Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel chasing shadows with his twinkle-toed surges and blind passes.

World Cup veterans Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscienly can expect the same treatment when Arsenal provide the opposition for the decider on May 30.

Of the 52 passes delivered by the Brummie, 48 were completed - equating to 92.3 per cent completion rate. And this an area which successive Ireland teams in recent years have proven abject at.

In tandem with the youngster’s name being magnified today, so to has the critique around his own international persuasion.

Officially, Grealish is off the market – be it to Ireland or England – until September but lest it not be forgotten that he’s represented the country of his grandparents since the age of 14 and rebuffed England’s overtures twice already.

Yet, were he to contact O’Neill this week and break his sabbatical for the pivotal qualifier, he would be wasting his time based upon the manager’s latest sentiments. 

As well as discounting Grealish's ability for the big occasion, O’Neill made some other interesting remarks on the hot topic of the teen prodigy during his briefing with reporters from Sunday newspapers.

"I've been involved close to 18 months now, if he was available to us he would have quite surely. . . regardless of not getting starts at Aston Villa, we'd have had enough friendly games that he would have had an opportunity to make an impact at senior level, if he'd been with us from the start," he said.

Really? The date of 15 November 2013 was significant not alone for being O’Neill’s first game in charge against Latvia but so too for Grealish, as he netted his first goal for Ireland’s U-21s against Faroe Islands a few hours earlier in Sligo.

The following week, Grealish made light work of the monsoon-like conditions in Podgorica and cynical fouling by the Montenegrins during a scoreless draw to claim the man-of-the-match accolade. Afterwards, Ireland manager Noel King likened the individual display to one of Aiden McGeady’s better performances.

Five months later, in March 2014, Grealish was again on international duty but much closer to home at Tallaght Stadium on a Spring afternoon.

Montenegro were also the opposition in a make-or-break qualifier for the U-21s. Although the seniors were playing a friendly against Serbia that night, neither O’Neill nor his assistant Roy Keane came to watch any part of a game in which Grealish shone.

The playmaker was at the time playing his club football on loan with Notts County in the lower reaches of League One.

Two weeks later, O’Neill sent his goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh to watch Grealish play 90 minutes in the 4-1 win over Carlisle. On April 5, O’Neill himself fancied a gander and turned up at Brentford where the loanee was dropped as County went on the defensive against the division’s pacesetters. Grealish was introduced at half-time.

Throughout all this time, Grealish was very much “available” to O’Neill.

An inherent trait of any successful manager is their ability to spot potential.

For all his shortcomings, Stephen Staunton displayed enough conviction to call a 16-year-old, Terry Dixon, into his squad for a training camp and friendlies in May 2006 while, eight years prior, Mick McCarthy threw a 17-year-old Robbie Keane into the senior international set-up whilst the fresh-faced Dubliner was operating in the second tier of English football.

With four friendlies, including two in America, arranged for May/June 2014, latitude for experimentation was there for O’Neill to utilise in the lead-up to the Euro 2016 qualifiers commencing in September. Grealish wasn’t deemed worthy of being part of that process, even as a fringe player.

Rookie goalkeepers Aaron McCarey and Ian Lawlor were brought stateside in the past two summers respectively for “experience”, so why didn’t the same apply for a player clearly head and shoulders above his peers at U-21 level?

Another curious O’Neill observation was introduced to the rationale behind his current take on the situation.

He said: "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.”

The first meeting between O’Neill, Grealish and his father, Kevin, took place on August 20 last. Also in attendance at the hotel in the Grealish’s neighbourhood of Solihull was Roy Keane, then double-jobbing at Villa.

This was exactly a week after Villa chief initiated contract talks with a player they risked losing for nothing in the summer amid interest from Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Genuine interest.

O’Neill later revealed that his suggestion of promoting Grealish to “train” with the senior squad had been politely declined, a stance he fully understood given the challenges he was dealing with at the time for club and country.

Fast-forward to April 2015 and Grealish seems to be further away from a senior Ireland cap than he was then. Whilst the Irish hierarchy continue to doubt him, similar showings by Grealish to Sunday in Villa's final six games of the campaign may convince England otherwise.

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