Friday 22 November 2019

O'Neill's regrets will centre on lost opportunity of last summer

Public rejection from Jack Grealish poses many questions but the reality is that Villa star has controlled situation since September

Martin O’Neill has watched Jack Grealish develop into a real star
Martin O’Neill has watched Jack Grealish develop into a real star
The ball that bounced into Grealish’s court nine months ago remains in his possession.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The nub of the matter when it comes to reflecting on another chaotic Irish football morning is to ask what could have been done differently to ensure a happy ending in the protracted courtship of Jack Grealish.

This is what Martin O'Neill will have to ask himself if his worst fears are realised and the teenager opts to throw in his lot with England.

In the course of a long series of press briefings with multiple questions and various angles on the story of the day, the Derryman's mood veered between positive and negative.

"He is English, he was born in England and his father was born in England," he asserted at one juncture.

"I can genuinely understand those ties, that's really understandable. And I'm sure if England were to come calling, that's something that might be hard to resist for him. But I don't think England have been calling. I don't know that for certain, but I don't think they have."

It was a statement which emphasised that, ultimately, the FAI have lost control of the Grealish situation; the player and his family hold most of the cards now, with Roy Hodgson and the English FA next in line in terms of being able to really influence proceedings.

A delayed press conference, with uncertainty surrounding whether an uncapped performer was willing to come on board, presented a humbling reminder of where Ireland stood in the pecking order. The optics were poor.

Essentially, that's been the case since September when he embraced a sabbatical from international duty for a year, ostensibly to concentrate on making his name at Villa Park.

If there was any doubt about his grip on the script, it was confirmed when an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley was treated like he had spent his entire life on that stage.


This gave him the authority to keep Ireland on the long finger, despite the efforts of O'Neill in the past 48 hours to force things or reveal the motivations behind the stalling tactics depending on your take.

"The last four or five weeks have made a big difference to Jack's career and my thinking," said the 63-year-old - an indirect admission that the floppy-haired playmaker was much further along in his development than he'd realised."

Why did he act this week?

"Sometimes you have a gut instinct about these things," said O'Neill, explaining why he suddenly decided to up the ante, a contrast from his pre-Wembley stance which effectively came down to the assertion that he would not be chasing a player with a lot to prove.

"That last victory there (for Aston Villa) on Saturday has possibly done enough for them to stay up and there'd be a massive relief around the place and he might be in this position, over the last day or two, to think about it and maybe that might be a type of release for him."

It seems as though the manner with which this approach was received by the Grealish camp and, by extension, Aston Villa, is set to shape the debate in the coming days. Tim Sherwood will have an interesting pre-match press conference to conduct.

But returning to the heart of the issue, there is logic in the theory that O'Neill simply invited the prodigy into a summer camp 12 months later than he should have done.

For the June 2014 shindig, Manchester City rookie and U-21 international Ian Lawlor was brought into the fold for a bit of experience, with no prospect of game-time.

Rob Elliot's wedding opened up a specific spot in the goalkeeping department which gave him an opportunity to familiarise himself with the surroundings.

That could have been the moment to invite the star player from the U-21 dressing room in for a look, even if it was on the same terms - that a cap was likely off the agenda. Coming off the back of a promising loan campaign at Notts County, the hype around the gifted individual was growing.

It has been suggested that an offer to join the group in the USA would have been welcomed by Grealish and his family and sped up the integration process.

Shay Given recently spoke about how the Villa stars have implicit trust in Grealish because they have seen first-hand what he is capable of; an American holiday could have built the same understanding in the Irish sphere and formed new relationships too.

This is by no means a flawless argument but it's not unreasonable to deduce that the opportunity to head difficulty off at the pass was missed at that juncture.

Upon his appointment, O'Neill stressed that he would avoid the temptation to throw caps around like confetti. There is a lot of merit to that argument. Joey Lapira anyone?

The problem is that it should have been recognised that Grealish is at the other end of the scale, a young man that Ireland desperately need given the age profile of the senior panel.

O'Neill may not be around for the World Cup 2018 campaign if it all goes wrong - it must be acknowledged that he was given a short-term target by his employers which explains a reluctance to wildly experiment with kids - but he acknowledged the plain truth that Ireland will have a better chance of getting to Russia with Grealish on board. Hence, his aversion to knee-jerk reactions to this rejection.


"I think he would be pretty welcome at the end of the day," he continued, when it was mentioned that some Irish fans have taken the 'jilted at the altar' approach and have no room in their heart for a second (or third) chance to say yes.

"The reality is that while it might have been prudent to back off until September, giving up altogether in a fit of pique would be a daft response to yesterday's developments.

"Like most things, if he's going to improve the team and he could improve our chances of qualifying for a World Cup or something like this, then I think you'd be foolish not to (accept Grealish)," he asserted.

O'Neill has strong reasons to be sceptical about the outcome, apart from a few crumbs of comfort that come with a caveat.

Hodgson has an abundance of options and it would be a departure from his norm if he decided to fast-track the new kid on the block.

"Roy is dealing with experienced players and even the younger lads he has at this moment are vastly more experienced than Jack at club level," proffered the Irish supremo.

On top of that, there's the genuine sense that Grealish has enjoyed his Irish underage experiences - he made lasting friends and was treated well.

"I think the FAI and the lads like Noel (King) and all the people that work with him and have looked after him brilliantly, I think that counts for something at the end of it in his decision," he mused.


"But I can understand if England did come calling at senior level, it's something you might have to think about."

That devil's advocate was always lingering and, unfortunately, the absence of any intrigue in England's qualifying group, with a French ticket practically ensured already, could end up liberating Hodgson.

Regrettably, what the FAI are left with is a scenario where it would actually be beneficial if the whizz kid's form deteriorates between now and September to drop his story further down the English agenda.

This is what happens when there is a dearth of home-produced superstars knocking on the door, a problem that O'Neill inherited.

His chance to really affect this situation has passed. The ball that bounced into Grealish's court nine months ago remains in his possession.

Irish Independent

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