'Short Jack and sides' inspiration aims to spur Villa
When Tim Sherwood told Jack Grealish he was making his first Premier League start last month, the reaction gave an intriguing insight into the teenager's character.
"About time!" was Grealish's reply, and ever since that pulsating draw against QPR, Grealish has underlined exactly why people at Aston Villa have been talking him about for years.
The Brummie with the boyband haircut and socks rolled around his ankles is now one of the most highly-rated youngsters in the Premier League and will face Arsenal at Wembley today, determined to help propel his beloved Villa into Europe.
After sitting in the Doug Ellis Stand as a child with his father, the FA Cup final represents an ambition fulfilled for a player with only seven top-flight starts to his name.
"This is a dream come true for Jack and a dream come true for his old man too," says Kevin, his dad. "All he's ever wanted was to play for Villa - he didn't have much choice really because I've been buying him season tickets since the age of four.
"Whatever happens, he won't be changing because he doesn't like the limelight. He's not big time, he still lives at home with us and I can assure you he still tidies his room. He's still picking his sisters up from school and having his mates round to play Fifa."
Grealish has already come a long way since that 3-3 draw with QPR, producing a star-is-born performance in the semi-final win over Liverpool later that month.
The claret and blue shirt from that game is framed in the Grealish house in Solihull, alongside other jerseys belonging to the likes of Frank Lampard.
He has also played his part in helping guide Villa to survival and his emergence has only intensified the battle between England and the Republic of Ireland over his international future.
It is not just his performances that have caught the eye either. In Birmingham's city centre, off Broad Street, the Gentleman Barbers have reported a surge in 'short-Jack-and-sides' haircuts.
On Thursday, Grealish was there having a last-minute trim before Wembley, driven by his dad as he is still taking lessons.
His story begins as a six-year-old, when he was discovered by Villa scout Jim Thomas playing for Highgate United U-7s.
"Jack had the No 4 on his back and early in the game he dribbled round every player on the pitch and scored," says Thomas, now 78.
"I thought it was either a fluke or he's Diego Maradona. But blow me, he did it again in the same game. I reported back to Villa and he has been there ever since. He's a magician and when I saw him make his Villa debut against Manchester City last season it was a proud moment."
Between the ages of ten and 14 Grealish played Gaelic football but there was always a sense within Villa's academy that he was one to keep an eye on.
Villa staff still remember Grealish's introduction as a substitute against Ajax in the Next Gen tournament in November 2011, when he "ripped them to bits". He was placed on the bench during Alex McLeish's final games in charge, with panic setting in as Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur hovered.
Playing 39 games for Notts County in the unforgiving environs of League One last season proved pivotal in his development. Former County manager Shaun Derry said: "We inherited Jack when we came in and didn't know much about him.
"But very soon after we were appointed he scored a goal against Gillingham that made us realise we were dealing with a very special talent. It was his first goal in professional football - he dropped his shoulder about three or four times and ended up smashing the ball into the top corner.
"He's a throwback player who didn't really take any interest in training, it was all about playing off the cuff and he's almost like a street footballer."
Grealish's development had not gone unnoticed. Last year he was at the centre of a chase from leading football agencies but eventually signed with Stellar, who include Gareth Bale, Joe Hart and Ashley Cole among their clients.
It has not been all straightforward at Villa, however. Paul Lambert admits they often didn't "see eye to eye" and Grealish was fined in January for tweeting "Can't wait to be happy playing football again."
There were also unfortunate headlines when a photograph of him inhaling laughing gas over a year ago surfaced in one of the tabloids.
But Sherwood's arrival in February represented a turnaround and Grealish will face Arsenal as one of Villa's potential match-winners.
"The bigger the stage the better he's been and there isn't any better stage than Wembley so I'm hoping he perform - otherwise we'll sell him!" joked Sherwood on Thursday.
"I don't think he gets nervous. He doesn't look the type. He's a terrific player and we're happy he's on our side.
"I think he realises the enormity of it because he is around Villa fans all his life. Jack has never seen the club win a trophy. Even if he tries to get away from it it's impossible with his family walking around with Villa shirts on every day."
There will be over 20 family members at Wembley, including his dad, mum Karen, older brother Kevan and sisters Kiera and Holly. It promises to be a poignant afternoon too, with Grealish motivated by a tragedy 15 years ago when his brother Keelan died from cot death at the age of nine months.
"I've seen the Villa win everything bar the FA Cup so it would be amazing if they could do it this weekend," says Kevin. "There were 42 of us at Villa Park when he made his first start against Blackpool. Everyone in the house, plus the cousins, brothers-in-law are coming and all week it's been about the build-up.
"Now Jack's playing in the final. Wow." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Arsenal v Aston Villa,
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