Friday 24 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Martin O’Neill needs to force Jack Grealish’s hand with Ireland call-up

Time for tip-toeing around Villa teenager is over as English take real interest

Jack Grealish is old enough to know what nationality he feels now
Jack Grealish is old enough to know what nationality he feels now
'As a player, Henry existed on a higher level to Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. But, as a pundit, he is vanilla ice-cream to their vindaloo'
Matt O'Connor’s choice of enemies would lend you to believe that he doesn’t much like blue skies and peace in his life
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You get the feeling that Martin O'Neill might as well be communicating with Jack Grealish by fax for all the warmth of his pronouncements on the Birmingham kid.

If this was a courtship, he'd be doomed to die a lonely man. It's always a risky strategy to play hard-to-get with someone you may need more than they need you and, given the English media's discovery of Grealish at the end of a rainbow last Sunday, that could be the case now. A small avalanche of pieces appeared this week all but goading the English FA into aggressively pursuing the young Aston Villa player.

He comes across as a kid who loves the attention of being an overnight sensation, but loathes the questioning that it brings.

"Confused" is the description Shay Given chooses. Grealish can't make up his mind whether to stick with Ireland, who he has represented 19 times at underage level, or commit to the land of his birth.

It could, of course, be broken down into a plainer conclusion. He's just waiting for England to call.


There's been an oddly conflicted feel to the Irish pursuit of Grealish. Naming him U-21 Player of the Year after just two appearances was, maybe, a tad over-keen. But perhaps it was just a diplomatic balancing of the books after Roy Keane's outburst last November that "knowing his dad, we could be waiting a bloody long while!"

Around the time of Keane's eruption, O'Neill was moved to stress that he was "not going to chase" Grealish.

Something, clearly, was at the heart of their frustration. It sounded as if they might already have actively engaged with the young player and his family only to encounter evasion. As if they sensed some kind of game being played in which O'Neill and Keane were reluctant to become pawns.

They had, after all, invited Grealish to train with the senior squad one month earlier only to have the invitation politely declined.

Trouble is, the Irish manager isn't really in the habit of giving straight answers to straight questions. He tends to come at this business like an actuary, juggling the risk and uncertainty, talking in code almost. He seems to regard Grealish's age (19) as a stumbling block to involvement in senior football despite the fact that Raheem Sterling had 13 senior caps for England before his 20th birthday.

But if you can cruise through a Wembley FA Cup semi-final in front of more than 80,000 fans as Grealish did last weekend, how on earth does age represent a great impediment?

The suspicion here, hopefully wrong, is that the player wants to play for England. He has grown up English and, for all of Given's efforts to dissuade him, he probably believes that the only true way to represent his friends and neighbours is by wearing the three lions. If so, who could blame him?

And the English media now beats the drum for Jack Grealish. As one wrote this week, the only concern was that "even the ponderous English Football Association will not allow a player of this quality to slip away."

You get the sense there is too much Irish tip-toeing going on here. Grealish is old enough to know what nationality he feels now. He isn't some vulnerable child in need of protection from people asking awkward questions.

O'Neill seems to bristle a little when asked about him, but it's in the Irish manager's power to bring this to a head now. He should declare his intention to include the player in his squad for the Euro Qualifier against Scotland in June. In other words, force the issue. Stop communicating cryptic messages about young Grealish and just pick him. If the player decides it's not for him, then wish him well with his England ambitions.

But let us all desist from this nonsense of trying to interpret Grealish's shamrock-laden tweets, his acknowledgement of St Patrick's Day, his occasional references to playing as a child in Croke Park.

He comes across as decent, well-mannered, likeable. And he is a player who offers something elusive to most teams, that rare ability to float between the lines. Could Ireland could do with him? Could we hell.

There is a dearth of creativity in the current Ireland midfield and a growing sense that the Euro Qualifying campaign has simply been rescued from ignominy by those injury-time goals against Georgia, Germany and Poland. The team tends to lack fluency and, perhaps, a maverick talent like Grealish's might offer a different dimension.

But if the green shirt is second choice, then it should not be worn at all.

And that's the undeniable impression you have to take from Grealish's indecision. That he is simply waiting for something better to come along. Something more glamorous.

So Jack Grealish has a decision to make. It's time Martin O'Neill told him.

Thierry becomes punditry's richest clown

Maybe Thierry Henry simply wants Jeremy Clarkson's old gig and is led to believe that only controversialists need apply.

Or it could be he just maintains football people to be so fundamentally stupid, they barely have the intellectual capacity to brush their teeth, let alone store the hurt of a six-year-old Paris theft. Either way, his hypocrisy was breath-taking.

Now there is a theory about his criticism of Chicharito's goal celebration in Madrid on Wednesday night. It runs along the lines that, with a six-year Sky deal worth a startling £24 million, the penny began to drop with somebody on set that that was rather a large amount to pay for the kind of roboticised pundit who thinks it enough to sit in his Savile Row finest, offering all the insight of a pet dog.

As a player, Henry existed on a higher level to Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. But, as a pundit, he is vanilla ice-cream to their vindaloo.

So the man who ran such a biblically wide arc behind Shay Given's goal to celebrate William Gallas' critical goal at Stade de France in 2009, a goal he'd helped set up with two clear hand-balls, took it upon himself to bare some opportunist teeth. How? By calling into question the etiquette of a goal-scorer celebrating a goal.

Beyond the accompaniment of canned laughter it lacked little in comedic power, Carragher and Neville left staring at the ridiculous Frenchman as if his trousers was on fire.

Henry won the lottery when he signed his Sky deal, just a pity it did nothing for his intellect.

O'Connor picks wrong fight with season on brink

Matt O'Connor's choice of enemies would lend you to believe that he doesn't much like blue skies and peace in his life.

Tossing stones in the direction of Joe Schmidt these days feels the equivalent of kicking in a stained glass window and, thus, a difficult week for O'Connor has curdled into some kind of modern inquisition. Losing an away Champions Cup semi-final to Toulon in extra-time should, logically, never have decanted calls for O'Connor's head as Leinster coach.

But he has, palpably, struggled for acceptance in that role, bar within the dressing-room where his players, almost to a man, speak in glowing terms of O'Connor's talents.

Trouble is, he seems outwardly dour and lacking in charisma so, when his team underachieves - as they clearly have done in the Pro12 - patience is threadbare. If expected failure to make the play-offs materialises, resistance to O'Connor will now stiffen.

Picking a fight with Schmidt was really the solution from hell. It's not a change of luck he needs. It's a political advisor.

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