Daniel McDonnell: McManaman-style Grealish has skills to become real deal
Sky is the limit for the Villa youngster if he is able to cope with the expectations that accompany his status
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
As the only current Premier League footballer who wears children's-size shinpads, Jack Grealish clearly likes to stand out from the crowd.
It's a superstition that he has carried through from his early teens and, combined with the socks rolled around the ankles, it gives him a distinctly old-school appearance.
From his own school days, Grealish has been marked out as a special talent and the whispers from the underage scene have now become public knowledge.
His emergence at Aston Villa has put the Brummie into an elite bracket of Premier League teenagers with star quality and, by extension, turned him into one of the biggest Irish sports stories of 2015.
The fear is that, as a consequence, he will be a very English story come next year.
Players and pundits have queued up to shower praise on a naturally gifted player who is cut from a different cloth. His calmness on the ball which hints at maturity beyond his years poses an obvious question? How good will he be when he's fully developed?
Scouting reports centre around the positives and the negatives, yet there is a shortage of on-the-record scepticism about Grealish.
Shaun Derry managed the youngster during his character-building stint in League One with Notts County and said that the only problem was a carefree approach to his day-to-day work.
"From day one, you just knew this was a very special player," said Derry, after Grealish announced himself to the world by sauntering through the FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool.
"He didn't really seem to understand the importance of training at the time, he just wanted to play football. And when he did play and when he was on form, he was unplayable.
"Jack needs to have an understanding of the importance of training, but once he understands that and does that week in and week out, we will have a top player on our hands."
Tim Sherwood did joke last week that Grealish takes a fair bit of training ground punishment because of his trickery, and opponents are fond of kicking the flashy-looking newcomer.
But there is no suggestion that Grealish is soft or prone to serious theatrics.
"He almost likes it," asserted the Villa boss, "No one likes getting hurt but he loves bodies around him. If he's kicked, he doesn't roll around on the floor. He's almost a little bit too honest, maybe it's the British in him."
The 'British' reference raised a few paranoid eyebrows in the context of the international tug-of-war, despite the fact that Grealish has been produced by the English system.
Yet while his attitude to a bit of roughing up might win favour with the traditionalists, his main attributes do not conform to a stereotype. His style is extremely un-British.
Grealish is unlikely to be noted by opponents for his pace and power. He is frequently described as a winger, yet he is far more than that.
The popular MatchAttax trading cards, which are loved by the kids these days, rate players under the bread-and-butter headings but he actually comes into his own in the areas of awareness, movement and game intelligence which can be the ticket to longevity.
Speed demons can lose their key strength over time, but Grealish has that swiftness of thought which should last the course.
Timing is everything. His roles in Villa's two Wembley goals are the prime example.
They weren't defence-splitting through balls; he just had the composure to do things at his own pace and urge his team-mates to make the right run in the confidence he would pick them out.
When it comes to dribbling skills, he has a penchant for running in straight lines across the park, leaving a posse in his wake, that draws an obvious comparison with Liverpool legend Steve McManaman. His contemporary Jamie Redknapp noticed the likeness.
"He is quick but has a languid style, like Steve," he said. "When he drops his shoulder, he sends defenders so far the other way, they almost have to pay to get back in."
Unsurprisingly, McManaman enjoyed success when he moved abroad and it's easy to see Grealish slotting into a different culture.
That's why he will be suited to the international game; he was named Irish U-21 Player of the Year for 2014 because he was the outstanding performer on either side in both games he participated in, and that included a match with a classy German group.
His team-mate Ashley Westwood loves watching Grealish breeze away from pursuers with ease. "It's frightening," he observed.
"Just look at the way he picks up the ball and runs with it - he glides across the turf and goes past people for fun. If he adds a couple of goals to his game - which I am sure he will do - he can be whatever he wants to be."
Certainly, if there is a fault to be picked, it's under the heading of goals scored. Despite his ability to ghost into promising positions, the 19-year-old is waiting for a Villa strike after 21 appearances this term, although a good number of those were brief cameos.
At Notts County, he left enough memories to produce a decent montage and demonstrated that he is capable of finishing a weaving solo run with a finish of similar quality. He probably didn't do it regularly enough, though, scoring just five in 39 outings.
These are minor quibbles when analysing an individual who ticks all the right boxes. He does have a swagger, a cockiness that will always rub certain people up the wrong way.
Sherwood is charmed by it, and happily told the story of how Grealish reacted to the news that he'd be making his first Premier League start against QPR. "It's about time," he replied, cheekily.
When Paul Lambert was reluctant to place his trust, Grealish used Twitter to post a picture from his Notts County days with a caption stating that he just wanted to be happy playing football again.
At that juncture, one could have interpreted his actions as petulance. The level of subsequent displays allows it to be remembered as confidence.
All the usual warnings are applied to predicting greatness. Football's history is littered with tales of unfulfilled potential and Grealish will have to steer clear of the snakes that come with fame and keep climbing the ladder. Football-wise, he will have to evolve when the novelty wears off.
The manner with which he has dealt with the pressure of a relegation battle and embraced the role of big-game player would suggest this is a rare gem that will shine brightly regardless of what jersey he is wearing.