If a ‘transfer fee merely captures a moment when the circumstances of two clubs collide’ then the disheartening news for Jack Grealish is that he will not be leaving Aston Villa this year; there is no club whose circumstances will collide with Villa’s valuation of their captain in 2020. To Villa he is ‘worth’ a figure – rumoured to be £80m but it could conceivably be even more – but he is ‘worth’ nowhere close to that figure to anybody else. So he is stuck. Or as stuck as any footballer playing in the Premier League for his boyhood club could ever be.
That’s not to say that Aston Villa are being unreasonable in their valuation and nor do they have any obligation to their captain to release him for less. The argument that Grealish almost single-handedly saved them from relegation and thus should be rewarded with a reasonably priced departure is absurd; his performances did not open the exit door but instead added a double lock and one of those tricky little chains to the exit door. He proved he was almost priceless to Villa; the problem is that he is not almost priceless to anybody else.
Rather neatly, that trite quote about the circumstances of two clubs colliding was written about the £20m transfer of Tyrone Mings. That figure now looks unremarkable but last July it seemed ridiculous to many, who provided lists of centre-backs who could be bought for less, as though that was at all relevant when Villa wanted the centre-back who had helped them into the Premier League. Bournemouth used their desperation to demand a figure that nobody else would pay for a player they did not even want themselves. And it happens all the time.
Fast-forward seven years (or something) and Villa’s survival means that Mings’ price tag has probably doubled (reports last month were of a knock-down ‘reduced £30m’ fee) and Grealish’s has sky-rocketed. Neither will attract suitors at the numbers Villa will quote this summer, but it is Grealish who has reason to feel aggrieved, for he has played himself into a position where he is not transferable.
As excellent as he was last season, Manchester United will not pay anywhere close to £80m for a Bruno Fernandes understudy. And Manchester City – whose style probably suits him better – will not smash their transfer record for an Englishman when they have Phil Foden in reserve. “An exceptional player but too expensive for Manchester!” said Pep Guardiola back in October. What’s easily forgotten amidst the vast total outlays of City is that no single extraordinary sum is ever spent on one player (not called Eliaquim Mangala). And £80m would be a single extraordinary sum for a player with one significant season of Premier League football.
‘He wants to know from Villa that any interest from elite clubs will not be dismissed out of hand’ was one line in a piece clearly sourced from his agents last week, but Grealish will not find sentimentality or sympathy rife in businessmen charged with making Villa a viable and established Premier League club. It is their right to set a price for their asset just as it was Crystal Palace’s right to set a price for Wilfried Zaha. Their stories are now likely to follow a similar arc; Grealish will eventually sign a new contract that will keep him in golden shackles and we can play this game again next summer when his price might have either halved or doubled again.