The rock star midfielder with floppy hair and skill to burn…

Date published: Friday 3rd January 2020 1:12 - Sarah Winterburn

Johnny chooses someone or something in football that deserves celebrating for what they’ve done this week.


Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is a 24-year-old born in Birmingham, brought up in Solihull and who has played for Aston Villa since he was just six years old. An exciting, attacking midfielder who is tipped to get into the full England squad for the Euros this summer, he is currently trying, pretty much single-handedly, to keep Villa in the Premier League.

Lean, strong and more rangey than his 5’ 9” height would suggest, he is at least as famous for his hair, sporting – as he does – one of those modern sorts of arrangements that annoy some of the grown-ups. On Saturday in a vital win away at Burnley, his floppy tonsorial adornment looked as though it was made out of spun gold which had then been laminated. It appeared to operate on his head as a single unit, like a muffin top made out of greasy feathers. Other styles have included this strange creation, which does look like someone burst a cushion full of spaghetti.

He has a very interesting accent and pronounces ‘music’ as ‘moosik’, as someone from Norfolk would do. Is that a Solihull thing?

He’s got a surname that sounds like a character from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast who would be in charge of oiling some large, creaking machinery which grinds stone in a land where the sun never shines.

But more seriously, Michael Cox has called him an ‘old school English number eight who can run a game’ and that says it right, I think. The fact he is repeatedly and persistently hacked down in every game is the indicator of his significance to Villa and of the danger he poses to the opposition.

There’s something of the rock star about the lad as he conducts himself in a good-humoured, shoulders-back, give-me-the-ball manner of a player who knows he might have to try and win this bloody game all on his own and just might be able to do it too.

A rock star midfielder with floppy hair and skill to burn? That’ll be Jack Grealish, then.


What have they done to deserve this then?
He absolutely spanked the winner against Burnley this weekend – an unstoppable right-footer into the top corner after shaping to put it in to the other side – and had a late-arriving header ruled out via VAR for a pathetic offside heel in an earlier phase that didn’t affect play or give anyone any advantage.

Not for the first time in recent months, he totally dominated the game and you just do not see players do that very often. Anyone not yet impressed surely had their eyes opened to what a tremendous, distinctive talent this lad is. His Villa side actually looks better than its relegation league position suggests, largely because of him and Super John McGinn (before he got injured) They look a class apart to the rest of the team and it will be how Grealish plays in the three months his midfield partner is missing that will largely dictate whether they stay up or go back to the Championship to rebuild again (which would actually be a lot more fun).

Already this campaign in 21 games he’s scored eight times, which is two more than the whole of last season across 35 games. He’s also contributed five assists in the league.

As a younger man he had a fair amount of bad tabloid press for various youthful shenanigans somewhat inevitably involving the very legal ‘hippy crack’, the reporting of which always comes across with a subtext of ‘If only youngsters would have a skinful of lager like previous generations because we can understand that’. Mostly this was all the exuberance of youth that is familiar to all of us. But since then, he’s really got his head down and set about making himself one of the best creative midfielders in the country. By all accounts he’s a decent cove who now look back on those stories with the sort of wry smile that we all reserve for memories of youthful stupidity.

Last season he was attacked by a Birmingham City fan on the pitch. In a now-famous incident he took a whack to the head from behind delivered by a hero-only-in-his-own-head dunderheed.

What was impressive was Jack’s reaction to the punch. He just sat on the pitch for a moment and had a wee laugh to himself. He also had a joke with the referee about it. Because, of course, he knew he was the winner. He’d been picked on precisely because of that. It seemed an appropriate response and one that was later rammed home when he scored the winner and got kneed in the back by a steward during his goal celebrations for his trouble. Nothing winds some people up than someone being really good at something. It’s not a quality humanity should be proud of. The puncher ended up in jail for a month but emerged saying “I’m not apologising for nothing”, seemingly unaware of the concept of the double negative.

But this hasn’t put Jack off his game at all and he now seems to be improving exponentially as the season progresses. At times, it is as though he’s got his own spotlight to follow him around. Villa’s whole game seems to be funnelled through him and it’s a role that he is blooming in, with many fans saying already that they don’t recall a better player at the club for many years.

Of course, this stellar talent has already attracted the super-rich clubs and the fear is that he’ll not be long for the Midlands, with many saying that basically we’d better enjoy him while we can because he’ll be off for a massive fee sooner than later. Don’t you hate modern football economics?


Anyone grumpy about it?
People who don’t have him in their FPL team.

It’s odd how some players aggravate some people. Jacks ‘crime’ is only to have a bit of self belief and to be unafraid to take control of a game by the scruff of the neck. There are those who say he’s arrogant but that’s frankly ridiculous. You absolutely need a confident sense of yourself to play his role. The whole functioning of the team now relies entirely on his shoulders. You need big balls and plenty of attitude to walk that walk and talk that talk. And yet I see people posting little video clips of him from a few years ago to try and prove he’s a diver or a bit snide. I mean show me a player that’s not done something wrong as youth. It is as though talent is provocative in football and requires putting down and slandering in some way. It’s such a killjoy approach to football and to life.

Some Irish fans resent that he jumped ship from being a youth player for the Republic to turning out for England U-21s but given he was emerging as a superb player and could play for either country, his choice was surely understandable and probably reflects his affiliations.


What The People Say
Naturally Villa fans see him as one of their own and as a great hope for the future whilst accepting that they won’t be able to hang onto him for much longer. There are some fine appraisals of his talent in this week’s huge response. We start as ever with a 4_4_haiku

He can beat a man sure, but his real skill is drawing in 2-3 players then taking them out of the game with a perfectly timed and weighted pass. He unlocks many a packed defence this way surely making him a good signing for a top 4 club. Or he can stay with us forever…

Most fouled player in the league. 82 times to be exact. 1 yellow card for diving which was widely agreed to be a referee error. Teams can’t stop him without fouling him.

This is his debut aged 18. 3 yellow cards given in 10 minutes. You can’t argue with facts. More players booked for fouling him than any other player in both the last two seasons, any division.

Good footballers these days are supposed to be robotic, devoid of personality – but he always looks like he’s loving every second of it.

Absolutely mental hair that really shouldn’t work but somehow does. Maybe it’s the boyish good looks and rolled down socks.

Played his best ever top flight game at Burnley, showing great maturity & calmness in possession. Caresses a ball like few other players from England, comfortable with both feet, has great balance in the dribble. Rarely loses his cool on the field. Finishing improving. Leader.

He’s one of only 4,763 midfield players linked with Man United in the January transfer window.

He’s grown up so much from silly tabloid headline fodder to a responsible yet passionate captain of the club he supported as a boy. Truly, one of our own.

Stayed with Villa when they got relegated and is now reaping the goodwill and fortune as they got promoted. Fair play to him.

Class player, class fella. Works his heart out for the club he loves and took it in his stride with no trouble when he didn’t get the big money move. Tougher than he looks, he gets kicked more than anyone in the league and gets on with it. Love him

He manages that hair pretty well.

Everybody likes Grealish, best of both worlds, loved by the yer das and the more sophisticated lovers of the game.

He’d be a really good player if he could stay on his feet.

I think he’s bounced back superbly from ’15 when he burst on the scene as some “hippy crack” kid with a shit haircut. I mean, he still has the haircut – but he is an awesome player. He mucked in and got his team out the Champ and now he’s a PL star. I hope Arsenal buy him one day.

Strangely, every time his name comes up I hear it in Tim Sherwood’s voice. I hope we can all enjoy him at Villa for his whole career, because a move to a more disciplined and expectant club might destroy him. He’d last about 5 minutes with a Mourinho or Guardiola. I say that will all due respect to Grealish and Villa, and with all due disrespect to regimented boring football that’s needed to win leagues.

By a distance the best player Villa have produced in at least last 25 years. Could play for one of the very best teams and wouldn’t look out of place. We’re lucky to have him

I will say that I thought he handled the attack from one of our neanderthal fans with a maturity that surprised and impressed me. And, yes, the whole boyhood fan, best player trying to save them thing is quite endearing. But he still has stupid, stupid hair.

Hated him for choosing England over Ireland, can’t help but forget all of that every time I watch him play.

The focus point of interest within the Aston Villa team & he has had to carry the weight of expectations from the fans during the first half of the season. Pressure will be even greater now as AV battle against relegation. The jury is still out whether he can continue to perform.

Funnily enough the pundits and the journalists and other managers aren’t talking about him diving, just bitter fans.

Should be straight in the England team. Great player.

Come to Arsenal pls.

Claiming scoring the winner away to Birmingham was the greatest day of his life despite getting punched by a fan.

Top class peaky fookin blinder. Rolled down socks, massive calves, took a punch from a Bluenose idiot and then scored the winner, picked Eng over Ireland, makes time slow down, good as big fish in a little pond and will be amazing playing with better players.

He’s living every kids dream and appreciates it all as he’s had the lows and highs already at 24 Captain Leader Legend.

Oh yeah, he’s not necessarily the ‘best’, just the most unique. When he’s at his best, he just seems to be the centre of the whole game. I’ve never seen that before.


What does the future hold?
Because modern top-flight football is horrible, unfair and dominated by financial bullies with a sense of entitlement so huge it has its own gravitational pull, the feeling that one of the best players of his generation will inevitably go on a big-money move to one of the usual big clubs. The feeling that it is inevitable is so depressing to fans of clubs like Villa and others who feel understandably that they are being asset-stripped.

Then again, that’s exactly how many smaller European clubs feel when the PL arrive waving big wads of money around and snaffling the best talent in Scotland, Belgium, Holland and elsewhere. Villa themselves got McGinn for less than three million from Hibernian when anyone who saw him play in Leith could have told you he was worth ten times that amount.

The big unanswered Grealish question is whether he shines as a big fish in a relatively smaller pond at Villa Park but can also cut it at an elite club in the full glare that would bring. Can he play as well when the whole team’s game isn’t set up to go through him?

Some question his temperament but this season he’s only got five yellow cards. Others feel he throws himself to ground far too readily and that would count against him at a big club. There is no doubt at all that he’s the sort of personality that would back himself to be a big player at the highest level.

Gareth Southgate has been reluctant to blood him in England’s first team so far and is hardly short of creative, attacking midfielders, but if the second half of the season is as good as his first, the calls for him to make the starting XI this summer will be loud indeed. However, Southgate, as he has shown with James Maddison, values a team player with good attitude and frowns on anyone who wants to play the Big I Am, so one suspects he needs to prove himself in that regard possibly more than as a football talent. However, it seems almost certain that he will soon be impressing with the three lions on his chest, bringing his adventurous haircuts to the international stage. What a pleasure that will be.

John Nicholson

More Related Articles