Sunday 9 December 2018

Grown-up Grealish ready to fulfil his potential at last

Jack Grealish. Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Jack Grealish. Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

John Percy

Jack Grealish is trying, and failing, to put into words what it would mean to win promotion with the club he has called home ever since he first walked through its doors as a six-year-old.

"I can't do it, to be honest," he says. "I'm an Aston Villa fan, I've been here since I was a kid and supported them before I ever knew about football. I'm one of them, I've stood and sang all the songs in the pouring rain. I can even remember crying in the stands when Gabby (Agbonlahor) scored against Birmingham.

"Of course, I want to be playing in the Premier League every week. I believe I can play at the highest level and I want to do it as quickly as possible.

"I'll be 23 in September and I want to be there with Villa. It would mean everything to help get us back where we belong."

Grealish, or 'Super Jack' as he is more commonly known by supporters, arguably represents Villa's best hope of ending their two-year exile from the top table.

He has been outstanding this season, finally living up to the hype that has accompanied him since an eye-catching cameo against Ajax in a Next-Gen tournament at the age of 16.

Grealish missed the first three months of this season after damaging one of his kidneys in a freak incident that left him struggling to walk and sleep and his return has been crucial for manager Steve Bruce.

The attacking midfielder has been compared to Paul Gascoigne, based on his ability to ghost past opponents as if they were training cones, and Bruce has described him as the best player in the Championship.

"That was great to hear but I didn't feel any pressure with it at all," says Grealish, smiling. "It gives me a lift. To be mentioned in the same sentence as Gazza was unbelievable in itself, though I know I'm nowhere near that level yet.

"The gaffer said in pre-season he wanted to build the team around me and that's what you like to hear. To have that belief and trust is massive."

Villa are experiencing an untimely wobble, with two defeats following their recent dismantling of leaders Wolves, but Grealish continues to deliver.

In his 19 games, he has created 30 goalscoring chances with a passing accuracy of 85.15pc, while his dribbling success rate is just under 60pc. Now there is end product to go with the X Factor haircut and rolled-down socks.

"I'm definitely in the best form of my career. It's been my best season and I've been the most consistent. People think I'm a No 10 but my favourite position is playing on the left of a three.

"I feel like I haven't been given enough runs of games. I'd play one decent game and then get chucked out of the team.

"I've also had eight managers in four years, if you include (England U-21s head coach) Aidy Boothroyd and Shaun Derry during my loan at Notts County. That's ridiculous really. It's not an excuse but it does affect you.

"I think only three managers have trusted me - (Tim) Sherwood, (Roberto) Di Matteo and Bruce."

Grealish was at the centre of a tug-of-war between England and the Republic of Ireland three years ago, before opting to play for the country of his birth. He is now too old for the U-21s but still harbours ambitions of a senior call-up.

"I still believe I can play for England one day and there's lots of time ahead of me to do it," he says.

Earlier in his career Grealish was under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons; there were stories regarding his social life, including a report that carried a picture of him lying on the floor apparently drunk in Tenerife. He was billed as the latest enfant terrible, but his recent absence from the news page suggests he has matured.

"Stuff happened in the past and you just have to choose the right moments to go out," he says. "When you break through, there's a lot of people clinging on and looking for a free night out. You realise who your friends are.

"It's too much hassle to go out now, anyway. I never want to let anyone down, especially my family."

Grealish still lives in the Solihull family home, with father Kevin, mother Karen, brother Kevan and sisters Holly and Kiera.

While their support remains a significant influence on his career, Grealish also points to the influence of a new team-mate at Villa.

"For a young player like me, John Terry is the perfect role model," he says. "I couldn't believe it when I heard we were signing him. When you see players who have won so much, you think they will be a certain way, but JT has been so down to earth and taken me under his wing.

"Every day he's the one here until 4pm, making sure his recovery is right, going in the pool and the ice bath, getting his massages to make sure he's fully ready for the next day. I've never played with anyone as professional as him before."

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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