Wednesday 19 September 2018

Grealish turning into sort of player Ireland so badly need

Jack Grealish is hoping to play for Aston Villa in Premier League next season. Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images
Jack Grealish is hoping to play for Aston Villa in Premier League next season. Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Jack Grealish is just the kind of player that Ireland needs right now and he can provide another painful reminder in tonight's Championship play-off decider with Middlesbrough at Villa Park.

That might be good news for Ireland if it helps Conor Hourihane and Scott Hogan get one step closer to a Premier League breakthrough. Glenn Whelan is in the dressing room too, although that's unlikely to be of long-term relevance to Martin O'Neill.

Grealish is the one that got away, though. The case is firmly closed as there is no going back. Once Grealish played competitively for the English U-21 side - a comedown from his original ambition after the messy tug of war over his future - the door to any Irish return was officially shut. FIFA rules do not permit a U-turn.

Even if they did, the rancorous fallout from the Brummie's change of heart would likely have confirmed his allegiance to his native land.

Social media has given Grealish a flavour of what a good portion of people in these parts felt about his decision to pass up on an Irish call after wearing green all the way up the underage ranks. To summarise: he was on the receiving end of céad míle insults.

Accelerated

They accelerated during Euro 2016, a time when it appeared that the only loser from the whole episode was Grealish. He was making headlines for summer holidays that made Irish fan socialising in France look like a tea party.

The conclusion was reached that Grealish was no loss. And there will be fans that always feel that way because his heart ultimately wasn't in it, which is an understandable point of view.

Ireland cannot rely on other jurisdictions to develop players and the English FA's renewed desire to nail down dual-qualified players has increased the pressure on the FAI to produce their own stars.

In that context, the profile of Colin O'Brien's Ireland U-17 squad is extremely encouraging.

But it was easier for Irish football to digest the loss of Grealish when it looked as though he was on the slippery slope away from delivering on his potential.

He was a tabloid target in England, and he made it easy for them with some poor life decisions. There was a naivety about his early approach to fame that didn't help, and his father also embraced the limelight around the life-changing run to the FA Cup final in 2015. After the rise came the rapid fall.

Attention from the English media quickly moved onto the next big thing. With Dele Alli starring at the top end of the Premier League, the exploits of an erratic performer with a side plummeting towards relegation became of little consequence.

Yet it has allowed Grealish time to grow up away from the spotlight and he is thriving under Steve Bruce. The boy has grown into a man and a bit of tough love at Villa - where fans grew tired of his off-the-field antics - tested the character. He has responded.

In last Saturday's first leg win at the Riverside, his quality shone through in a performance that was otherwise built on defensive grit and the experience of old-timers such as John Terry, Alan Hutton and James Chester.

Grealish was brave on the ball and now has the physical and mental strength to operate as a number ten; he can also glide past players and bring his side up the pitch. The evolution from a silky winger to a player of substance has been impressive. With Wes Hoolahan's departure leaving a creative void, Grealish could offer so much.

The Championship experience has toughened him. Opposing fans still like to give him a bit of grief; he remains an obvious target. Yet he has learned to take the flak, demand the ball and keep playing.

Bruce has described him as the outstanding performer in the Championship when in full flow and even drew a comparison with Paul Gascoigne earlier this season. "Not off the pitch," came the immediate clarification, that drew a few smiles.

After he shone at Middlesbrough, the experienced boss spoke of how the senior pros such as Terry had pointed him in the right way. "The dressing room had been toxic for years," he suggested, "Grealish, by the time he was 21, had five different managers all telling him different s**t basically.

"It's important he had a bit of stability, a bit of focus to see what he can achieve. Gone are the days when you can go nightclubbing and all the rest of it. It was important people like Grealish saw someone like John.

"This is the way you do it, this is how you look after yourself. It is alright a manager bleating at them but when they see a top pro do it. To be fair, (Glenn) Whelan is the same, (Ahmed) Elmohamady is the same, (Mile) Jedinak."

Grealish remains on good terms with several of his old Irish colleagues who were not offended by his international choice. He links up well on the pitch with Hourihane too.

Honing

Jack Byrne, a friend from his U-21 days who is now with Oldham, recently spoke on these pages about Grealish's commitment and the extra time he spends at work honing his skills. Bruce was won over by that enthusiasm, which differed from the outside perception. It's yielding results.

There's no guarantee that the transition will be smooth if Villa get the job done tonight and then negotiate the Wembley decider to return to Premier League. Grealish may not find it as easy to dictate games in that position against a higher standard of opponent.

Still, he has a style of play that is actually quite suited to international football, and it's possible that he might never get the run of games to show it.

England do have Dele Alli, after all, and their underage production line is churning out skilful performers. It would be painful for Grealish if he lost out on a career in that sphere.

But make no mistake about it - Ireland have lost out here too.

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough,

Live, Sky Sports, 7.45

Irish Independent

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