How different things could have been. Two young midfielders, both touted as among the most promising developing players in the country. Their experience had been limited to the lower leagues; their reputation had piqued the interest of England’s biggest clubs. This season heralded their breakthrough campaigns in the Premier League, and both became far more important to their respective clubs than had been envisaged.
While that importance continues to grow with Dele Alli, it lasted only a couple of months for Jack Grealish. Be it through injury, attitude or laughing gas, the 20-year-old has quickly become an afterthought in the litany of sh*te that has been Aston Villa’s season.
No-one predicted the incredible rise of Alli this season. The central midfielder finally completed his move to Spurs in the summer after signing for the club in January. Alli played 88 games for Milton Keynes Dons in League One, and the 19-year-old was bought as a prospect, a player for the future. Gradually, he became one of the most important members of a side challenging for the Premier League title. Having started the campaign as a relative unknown, the ‘prospect’ is now a certainty to make England’s squad for this summer’s European Championship in France.
It is difficult not to witness Alli’s rise and wonder what might have been for Grealish. The Aston Villa midfielder was supposed to be the breakthrough star. He was tipped to play a key role for his club this season. He was backed so vehemently for the England squad that the once Republic of Ireland hopeful was moved to declare where his international future lay. Alli’s spot as the brilliant young prospect was supposed to belong to the player seven months his senior.
‘Jack Grealish expected to be handed England debut after Aston Villa midfielder snubs Ireland,’ read the headline to a Daily Telegraph story in September. The first paragraph predicted, with authority: ‘Jack Grealish is in line to make his England debut in November after finally ending the uncertainty over his international future.’
Then of the Daily Mail, Neil Ashton wrote in October: ‘In the long term [Aston Villa] know that it will be difficult to keep a player of this calibre at Villa Park because his gilded touch will one day merit a place at a club challenging for the top four.’
It was supposed to be Grealish who burst onto the scene with an excellent performance against France in November, not Alli. It was supposed to be Grealish whose Premier League showings earned him mass praise, not Alli. It was supposed to be Grealish whose unprecedented rise culminated in an international call-up for a major tournament, not Alli’s. But in just seven short months, the Villa midfielder’s embryonic career has been left at a crossroads.
Back in November, I published a list of the top ten Premier League players who need a loan move. Grealish was top. ‘What benefit would that be?’ was the general response from Villa fans. The
IrishmanEnglishman was then an established first-team player, starting seven of the club’s first 11 Premier League matches, and coming on as a substitute in another. But Villa were visibly a club in turmoil. Tim Sherwood, perhaps Grealish’s most vocal advocate, had been sacked in October. The club were bottom, and had won just one of their opening 12 games. Players were struggling, the club’s owner was actively looking to sell, and the mood around Villa Park was understandably poisonous.
On a personal level, things were not much better for Grealish. Last season the youngster was pictured inhaling nitrous oxide, and the public backlash was one of fury. But young adults make mistakes, and at just 19 Grealish could be excused. Then images emerged of the midfielder sprawled on the road in a drunken state in the summer. In November, Grealish was filmed at a nightclub following a 4-0 defeat to Everton. Considering Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott represent his senior English role models, Grealish was always on a hiding to nothing.
He has not helped himself. That is without question. But the fall from grace was inevitable after being built up as England’s Next Great Hope. The 20-year-old is thought to be on a weekly wage of £20,000. Alli was earning £12,000 before penning a new deal at Tottenham in January, one which sees him earn just £5,000 more than Grealish per week. Too much, too soon comes to mind.
The sight of Grealish taking to the field provided the smallest of positives on yet another afternoon of negatives for Aston Villa. The midfielder had not played in the league since January 2, and was introduced with half an hour to go. But he looked lively. He looked bright. Most of all – and unlike the majority of the rest in claret and blue – he looked like he cared. Only two team-mates attempted more shots, and only three made more key passes.
— Andrew (@ffsvilla) April 2, 2016
‘NO FIGHT, NO PRIDE, NO EFFORT, NO HOPE,’ read a banner from disgruntled Aston Villa fans on Saturday. The supporters are upset at the club’s demise, but defeats are easier to stomach when the players show they care. Relegation may be a formality, but fans simply want to see determination and hard work. They want to see people playing for the shirt. If nothing else, Grealish does exactly that. After impressing for Notts County two years ago in League One, time in the Championship could benefit him more than any other Villa player. Time away from the limelight undoubtedly will.