Declaration delay means mere desire will never be enough
We're not laughing at Tim Sherwood now. The Irish Independent reported last week that Jack Grealish had agreed to be named in the Ireland squad but his withdrawal "followed a late intervention by Tim Sherwood. Sherwood, however, is not believed to have completely blocked the move, but had encouraged Grealish to consider his future carefully."
Grealish's reluctance to join up with the squad had prompted the immediate declaration from those who should know better, as well as those who never will, that such treachery should always be punished, preferably by a grand and self-destructive gesture.
It would, at least, have been a gesture, something that seems to tally with the dominant mood of the age: a desire for certainty and a loathing of equivocation and doubt.
Sherwood, too, could have been demonised in one version of the story. Here was another supercilious figure intervening to thwart the dreams of a benighted people and complicating further the intense relationship between Ireland and England.
Perhaps Sherwood had given his version of Thatcher's 'Out, Out, Out' declaration when he discovered that Grealish would join up with the Ireland squad. "Five-a-sides with Glenn Whelan and Aiden McGeady in Malahide - that is out. A photo call with Irish models pitchside at the Aviva holding an Irish scarf above his head - that is out. Sitting pointlessly on the bench with a camera trained on him at all times during a high-profile friendly between the two countries who have claim over him - that is out."
Sherwood insisted later in the week that Grealish had never altered from his original plan and he'd had no say in his decision, but it is possible he considered O'Neill's idea an appalling vista and one which threatened to unsettle the player in the important final weeks of the season.
In that analysis, Sherwood could reasonably have intervened while thinking only about Aston Villa, something which would be consistent with his comments on Thursday.
Thanks to Sherwood, Villa's season still has meaning and there aren't many clubs who can say that in a Premier League which heads towards a disappointing conclusion like an over-hyped party where nobody turned up and ends with four middle-aged men playing air guitar to 'Love Removal Machine' before they slump unconscious in a lager puddle.
Sherwood would have understood the consequences of Grealish accepting O'Neill's invitation. Last week's reaction provided a glimpse and if Grealish had actually been named in the squad, the questions in every Sherwood press conference would have centred on the teenager and his intentions, even if they hadn't changed. Sherwood might reasonably have wondered what the point of all the fuss was if the player wasn't going to make a declaration until September anyway.
The initial reports last Monday night and O'Neill's public comments on Tuesday suggested another approach, one which could lead to questions about the Ireland manager's judgment. A story the night before the squad was named claimed O'Neill's intentions to name Grealish, apparently without consultation. "It would also be a clever move by O'Neill as it would put the ball in Grealish's court and help avoid constant questions about the teenager in the Irish media. If the call-up is rejected, it will have to be done in public and O'Neill will justifiably argue that he could not have done any more to persuade the player to choose Ireland."
O'Neill might have hoped that his approach had this effect and certainly those who became misty-eyed about the fallen Irish heroes who never had a chance to play for their country were ready to believe that Ireland's manager had done enough and should do no more.
O'Neill spoke about his "gut instinct" which led him to consider a call-up and he described a scenario where Grealish, high on the improbability of it all, saw his selection as a way of ending the season with a note of Disney fantasy.
"Hell, yeah," Grealish would have responded when word reached him of O'Neill's cunning plan. He would then resume tweeting using shamrock emojis and a nation would learn to love him once more now he was ready to play against the old enemy before declining the opportunity to make an appearance against Scotland in case he wanted to play for the old enemy in the future.
It didn't work out like that and those who see identity as either/or may have to accept that whatever Jack Grealish might think about his Irishness, he doesn't share the online Irish patriots' view of England. Maybe that isn't good enough for those who crave passion, who, like Kenny Cunningham, need a decision made with the heart from players "who want it badly".
Grealish's views might reflect the post-nationalist age we - just about - still live in, an age which can make international football seem anachronistic, something which is reflected in attendances across Europe.
Some will still insist on the public posturing and if Grealish does declare for Ireland, which is unlikely, he can present himself for a full assessment on arrival.
Do you want it, we will say before asking him how much does he want it and, indeed, how badly does he want it and as long as the answers are a variation on 'real bad' we can walk away content.
Let us hope that Grealish or anyone who declares for Ireland doesn't reveal any ambivalence or hesitancy in the future. We can scan, too, for desire when the players sing the national anthem and maybe even wonder why they don't want it as badly as those who have been known to weep at the playing of the anthem or, indeed, a sentimental patriotic ballad.
Perhaps O'Neill's public comments last week were designed to protect the player from criticism having changed his mind but that didn't work out too well.
All that has been established at the end of another characteristically dysfunctional few days in Irish football is that some people demand loud and extravagant shows of allegiance and others don't feel the same way. Jack Grealish might be trying to let Ireland down gently - we won't fall for that - or maybe he simply doesn't know what he wants. In an age of screaming certainty, that's the greatest transgression of all.
Sunday Indo Sport