Wednesday 28 September 2016

Grealish has sights set on making up for lost time

Villa star says abuse from Irish fans surprised him after England switch

John Percy

Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30

Jack Grealish. Photo: Getty Images
Jack Grealish. Photo: Getty Images

As Aston Villa prepare to begin life as a Championship club tomorrow, Jack Grealish is vowing it is payback time.

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The lifelong Villa fan felt the impact of relegation more than most of his team-mates and it capped a miserable 12 months in his career.

After his astonishing breakthrough performance against Liverpool in the 2015 FA Cup semi-final, and him being widely hailed as one of the most gifted players to have emerged from the club's academy in years, Grealish quickly discovered the flip side to his new-found fame.

Later that summer, he was pictured lying on the floor on holiday in Tenerife, apparently drunk, in an incident that polarised opinion among supporters anxious for a local hero.

Speaking for the first time about the incident, Grealish admitted the lurid headlines made him grow up quickly.

"We all make mistakes when we're young but you won't be seeing me do any of that again," he said.

"I felt like a kid last summer and in February last year, before Tim Sherwood came in, nobody would have known who I was. I didn't realise what the attention would be like, I just thought I'd go on holiday like all young lads do.

"I look back on it now and, as a professional footballer, you can't do that sort of thing. We're supposed to be role models for kids."

There was another low point, when he was photographed in a Manchester nightclub after the 4-0 hammering at Everton in November.

On his return to Villa's Bodymoor Heath training ground, he was banished to the U-21s by Remi Garde, who was desperately trying to assert his authority with a disillusioned squad.

"We'd got well beaten and I still went out. Looking back, it was stupid," he recalled. "We weren't having a great season and those are the days you've got to go home and reflect on it, stick your head under the pillow.

"I feel like I've matured a lot and grown up since then. It's all about learning and I'm still only 20. You can see why the fans got frustrated and I've got a little bit to make up with them."

Grealish chooses his friends more carefully now, after pictures of the night out in Manchester were splashed all over social media. He still lives with his family in Solihull and those stories last season were especially difficult for his mother, Karen, to read.

Villa's abysmal campaign, which could serve as a case study in how not to run a football club, only made it worse. After Tim Sherwood was sacked in October, Villa recorded only two more league wins and were relegated amid acrimony and hostility from supporters.

"As a Villa fan all my life, it was horrible to see," said Grealish (right). "You're used to seeing the club in the top division and that's what made it worse.

"I feel like I could have contributed more, but the injuries and off-field issues made it difficult.

"It started well after scoring against Leicester and beating Birmingham in the League Cup but I found it much harder when Remi Garde came in. It was difficult to get on with him."

Grealish is focusing only on the future now. He was not even born the last time Villa played in the second tier but it already feels like a fresh start under new ownership, following Tony Xia's takeover.

The departure of Randy Lerner and the appointment of Roberto Di Matteo, plus the £12m signing of Ross McCormack this week, suggests there could be better times ahead.

"It's a huge season for me and the club. I'm so determined to prove people wrong this season, and do it for myself.

"I'm a Villa fan and I want to get this club back where it belongs," said Grealish.

"I look back on that Liverpool game and I'm hoping for more times like that. That was by far the best day of my life and gave me a taste of what it feels like to be successful.

"There was no pressure on us and I felt like a little kid going to play on a park that day. This season it's all going to be about hard work.

"A few days after the new manager was appointed, he rang me while I was on my holiday. For him to call me and have a positive chat gave me a really good feeling."

Grealish's holiday this summer could not have been more different to last year.

Campaign

"I went away to Dubai and Santorini with my girlfriend and was running on the beaches in the morning. I was also going to the gym in the evenings when she wanted to go out for dinner, so I wasn't too popular."

Grealish will be 21 next month and, beyond reviving Villa, has one eye on making his debut for England.

He was caught in the middle of an international tug-of-war last year, with Roy Hodgson mounting a campaign to make him choose England despite him having played for the Republic of Ireland at all the underage levels.

He eventually chose England, the country of his birth, missing out on potentially appearing at Euro 2016 for the Republic. It is a choice he believes will prove the right one.

"It was a big decision and wasn't easy for me. I thought about it for a long time, with my family and my agent, but in the end it came from me.

"I didn't think it was going to be so big, I didn't expect so much abuse from Ireland fans. I was still getting it during the Euros.

"But for my career, I think if I fulfil my ability, I feel I can play for England in years to come. I was born here, as were my parents, so I felt more English than I was Irish.

"I played for England at the Toulon Tournament for U-20s) and that was a great experience.

"I didn't really have a winning feeling last season, so to play four of the five games, and score twice, ended it on a good note.

"A cap for the U-21s is the next target. There's a qualifier in September and I want to try and be involved in that," added Grealish (pictured in his English shirt in Toulon)

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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