Sport Premier League

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Roy Keane approach could have averted Jack Grealish mess

Villa starlet is a big fan of straight-talking former Villa assistant

Martin O’Neill reopened a sensitive case in public by looking to name Jack Grealish in his Ireland squad
Martin O’Neill reopened a sensitive case in public by looking to name Jack Grealish in his Ireland squad

John Fallon

There came a point during Martin O'Neill's phone call to Kevin Grealish mid-morning on Tuesday when the topic of conversation drifted to the previous night's League One play-off.

Once the serious business of Kevin's son, Jack, had been attended to, the discussion took on a more frivolous tone, and they talked about the 10 goals shared between the sides at the County Ground, where Swindon beat Sheffield United to seal a Wembley place.

In the same calm, measured way he'd done last August in a Solihull hotel, Grealish Snr declined an invitation from O'Neill for Jack to come on board with his Ireland squad.

As his son was at training at the time - and contradicting the image of the over-bearing father with which Kevin Grealish has been vilified in some circles - he suggested that O'Neill could contact Jack himself to ensure their stance chimed.

The problem for the Ireland manager was that training would finish well beyond midday, the time he was due to begin a press conference full of journalists under the impression from newspaper reports that O'Neill intended to call Aston Villa's rising star into his squad for next month's games against England and Scotland.

As O'Neill shuttled around the swish sixth-floor offices of SSE Airtricity in Leopardstown, mobile phone glued to his ear, the eventual soundings from Birmingham were negative - and unsurprising.

The Derry man got hold of Jack Grealish but the longer conversation was with Villa manager Tim Sherwood. Each told O'Neill that naming Grealish in the panel, even just for the England friendly as a compromise, was a non-starter. It was nothing personal, simply an affirmation of his declaration to park international football until September.

Almost an hour later than scheduled, O'Neill faced the media and spent the next 80 minutes fielding queries on the player absent from the bloated list. The squad announced was for the crucial Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland, yet not one mention of his rival manager Gordon Strachan surfaced during the course of his briefing.

"This is Jack's day, I don't mind," O'Neill said in the final session of the day - half joking, half exasperated, before adding: "I will draw a line on it if that is the case for today - I think sometime he's going to have to make his mind up.

"It's not as if he's young. Lots of boys at 19 years of age have played more games than he has and made decisions on their own. From that viewpoint, those things are running out on him. I'm not so sure I should be camped outside his doorstep."

While that's where the subject ended for O'Neill, it didn't for Grealish and Sherwood. Subsequent reports that Grealish, or his father, had agreed on Monday night to be included in the squad only to reverse out of that the following morning were accompanied by suggestions that Sherwood dissuaded the player from accepting O'Neill's invite.

"There was no U-turn," insisted Kevin Grealish. "Jack's position is clear and hasn't changed since his statement at the FAI awards in March." Sherwood was similarly unequivocal in his dismissal of the speculation. "It's totally up to Jack. If Jack decided he wanted to play for Ireland now, or England now, then it's up to Jack. The decision was left with him."

Before trying to put the issue to bed, comments by O'Neill seemed to allow little space for manoeuvre on the player's part. Asked if Grealish requested time to consider the offer, the manager replied: "No, it was only to confirm what he had said before at the awards ceremony."

It was at that function in Dublin where the clues to a better-laid plan than O'Neill's failed midweek mission rested. RTÉ's studios provided the setting for the first meeting between Grealish and Roy Keane since the Ireland assistant manager quit the same role at Villa.

Ireland's under 21 Player of the Year had just sat down on the couch adjacent to the stage with his award when the 'Meet the Parents' moment arrived. From his front-row seat, Keane's stare caught the eye of Grealish and they briefly transformed into Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller as the Corkman pointed a finger to each eye and back towards the young gun. Both smiled.

Later that night, back at his city centre hotel, the teen's face lit up when recalling their 'circle of trust' exchange. Many of Villa's players revelled in Keane's exit from the club but not Grealish. Implicating his sidekick in Paul Lambert's cautious approach to managing Grealish's game-time is highly presumptuous.

"The most straight-talking person I've ever met in football," is how Grealish describes his former mentor. Despite Eamon Dunphy's view to the contrary, no offence was taken either by Kevin Grealish to Keane's remarks last November when he stated, "knowing his dad, we could be waiting a bloody while (for a decision)."

If, as he admitted last week, O'Neill's opinion on Grealish's readiness for international duty had shifted amid the player's recent surge for Villa, then the man to sound him out on possibly revising his status was Keane. Had Keane made the first move, arranged an informal sit-down with father and son to gauge their mood, then last week's eleventh-hour chaos could have been avoided.

Instead, a sensitive case was reopened in public, with Grealish bearing the brunt of online abuse, much to his family's annoyance.

"Jack might turn out to be a great player, he might turn out to be a flash in the pan," pointed out O'Neill last week, trying to temper expectations. He might have added that Jack might turn out to be an Irish internatinal, or he might turn out to be an English international. After last week's mess, we're no closer to solving that mystery either.

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