We need Jack Grealish and his throwback charm more than ever

Date published: Saturday 7th August 2021 3:21 - John Nicholson

Jack Grealish

In a sport increasingly filled by robots and automatons with no personality, Jack Grealish is able to express his beautifully on the pitch.

 

Who’s this then?
Jack Peter Grealish is 26 in September. He was born in Birmingham and raised in Solihull. He’s 5ft 9ins tall. That is also the circumference of his calves. He is currently the most expensive Premier League player ever and probably the highest-paid footballer in the land.

He joined Aston Villa aged just six and had been at the club for almost his entire professional career, notching up 213 appearances and 32 goals. A season’s loan was spent scoring five goals in 39 games for Notts County in 2013/14.

He set a record in 2016 of playing 16 Premier League games, all of them defeats. The club was relegated. It took Villa three goes to get out of the Championship and they threw a lot of money at it, so much that if they hadn’t been promoted in 2018/19 then FFP would’ve been knocking on the door.

But those three seasons in the second tier were great for Jack as they allowed him to develop his game, playing over 30 games each campaign, becoming club captain in March 2019 and driving them onto a 10-game winning streak which got them into the play-offs. They beat West Brom and Derby to get promoted.

Never far from controversy, there was the picture of him inhaling the auld ‘hippy crack’ in 2015, about which then manager Tim Sherwood rather brilliantly said: “He’s a young man, he was even younger a year earlier when the picture was taken.” He was once made to train with the reserves after going clubbing post-game. He was suspended for three games for stamping on Conor Coady. He was banned from driving for nine months and fined £82,499 after colliding with several parked cars.

In March 2019 a Birmingham fan ran on the pitch and lamped him, later being sent down for the pleasure. The sight of Jack sitting on the pitch and grinning afterwards told us a lot about his character.

Did he score the winner that day? You know it.

Internationally he started off playing for Ireland at under-age levels before opting for England and making his full debut on September 8, 2020 after a successful spell with the U21s.

From there he hasn’t looked back and has been one of Villa’s star players, playing in the Euros, making a couple of assists and generally looking like a cat with great hair that got the cream.

He is the most expensive player in the history of English football; at least until Harry Kane stops being so self-pitying and realises how distasteful he is being, given the broader context, then gets back in his pram and waits to be sold like so much prime steak to Manchester City.

Those are the bare facts. But there’s so much more to JG than numbers. Here is a player who brings that rarest of things: joy.

 

Why the love?
Jack is in the great tradition of mercurial English footballers with talent and charm to burn. He’s the player you’d want to be as a kid: dribbling around everyone, generally being the star. The fella with a twinkle in his eye who doesn’t really take it all too seriously – or so it seems. The street footballer who cares more about being flash and showing off than being a disciplined, soulless football machine. That’s why we love him.

He’s a throwback to the days when every team worth its salt had one or two Grealishs whose job it was to unlock a game played on a potato field against defenders who could remove most of your vital body parts with their feet in return for a mere yellow card.

There are heroes who clearly work hard every day to be great. There are dedicated professionals who ‘live right’ and subsume every ounce of personality into their football and as a result seem more like a football automaton. Those players seem to have no personality. When they talk it sounds like software, like a corporate chat line.

They have their football but there’s nothing else to them. And they’re praised for it. You can see why, but dear me, they’re poor role models for anyone with an ounce of sex and blood coursing in their veins.

Grealish, on the other hand, sees football as a quintessential expression of his personality. He brings an attitude and a delight to his game. And that makes him very attractive. We feel we are seeing the real him through his game, not just some hollowed-out robot whose personality has been replaced by football skills.

He seems to enjoy his privileged position, embraces it even.

This means that those who don’t like how he plays don’t like him either. There is no separation between how he plays football and the sort of person he is in the public imagination. That is far more rare than it should be and it marks him out as a special player.

Jack Grealish

Unlike so many English players down the years he’s not afraid of the ball. Quite the reverse. He has wonderful close control, will take anyone on, is capable of playing very direct, challenging football and as a result is fouled repeatedly, to an almost comical degree.

Almost every game I’ve seen him play, as soon as he gets the ball for the first time, bam, he’s kicked up into the air.

While those fans who don’t like him always accuse him of diving or, at the very least, going down too easily, no-one can deny he really is kicked from pillar to post in every game, sometimes lightly, sometimes vigorously. The fact he lets his socks fall down, wears kid’s shin pads and seems to hit the ground with a half-smile on his lips seemingly aggravates some fans, but endears him to more.

He’s developed the drawing of a foul into a real artform and it is a skill as much as any other. That other footballers fall for it every time as he delays laying a ball off, gives the opposition player a chance to nick it off him, before touching it past him and getting clattered, says more about their limitations than it does about Jacky G.

As a progressive midfielder or winger, he doesn’t score a massive amount of goals – his ten in 41 games in 2019/20 being his best return to date – but the feeling he could score a lot more if played in the right position persists. What is his best position is a question that will be asked more when playing for Manchester City.

Very much a tabloid press personality because his name provokes extreme reactions, both pro and anti. Sadly this means he will always be used by the sort of press and media that relies on cheap emotional responses to get clicks, viewers and readers. Indeed, Grealish seems almost larger than life, so over-discussed is he that it’s almost as though he’s a concept rather than a person. And here I am, adding one more piece to the pile.

The fact his girlfriend was getting a lot of death threats on social media during the Euros shows the consequence of this over-focus and obsession on one player. It is a madness made for money.

 

What the people say
Safe to say, few are indifferent to the Grealish charms. He infuriates some and is adored by others. I am unashamedly in the latter camp, feeling that we need people with the spark of divine, an inner mounting flame burning in them. They may be inconsistent and divisive, may not quite fit with the corporate sheen that has been veneered over top-flight football by money and privilege, but that’s why we need them. And there are not many around who combine skill and personality. That, in part, explains the huge fee paid for him. Grealish is the honey that pulls the wasps to the picnic, as well as the bees.

‘Maverick and a player we would call very un-English. He’s also not a system player, he needs freedom to play and there’s something brilliant about that. He’s not a winger and he’d not a #10, he’s just an attacking player, with a pretty unique skill set.’

‘The need for him in the Euro 2020 Final could be seen after an hour, not just with hindsight’s 20/20. He can keep the ball, control, carry, create, pass and beat players. It’s classic England to underutilise such talent. You have to give a peacock time to unfurl its feathers!’

‘Calves.’

‘He’s a throwback to when players could actually beat another player and not treat the ball like a hot potato. Reminds me of old school players like Davie Cooper, every team had one back in the day before they had it coached out of them. Plays like 10 year old us used to.’

‘The Pride of Ireland!’

‘He’s a generational talent, an exceptional footballer. And he’s a leader. Money well spent.’

 

Three great moments
Top corner vs Manchester United:

Show-off:

Punch. Goal.

 

Future days
Villa’s limitations meant he was regularly turned to to provide the creativity. Gareth Southgate also used him at the Euros as a late substitute to break up play and introduce a more random element. How will he fare under Guardiola’s anally retentive obsession with discipline and structure which demands players play to his system and don’t start thinking for themselves? It isn’t hard to see it not working at all as Jack refuses to do what he’s told to do where and when he’s told to do it and may not be so keen on doing his share of defensive work.

On the other hand, playing in a much better side usually makes a player even better. The City architecture could be just what he needs to elevate himself onto a higher footballing plane, at least alongside teammates who are on his own level.

Manchester City play a lot of games against vastly inferior teams whose only hope of avoiding a six or seven nil beating is to pack everyone behind the ball and try to brick up the goal. It’ll be Jack’s job to unpick the locks and find a way through. If he can’t do that, his manager has so many playing resources that he’ll drop him to the bench and give someone else a chance, £100million player or not. Money is valueless at City; deliver or you’re out, that’s the deal.

So he’s gone from being a certain starter as Villa’s best player to being just another big talent who will have to prove his worth pretty much every game. It is to be hoped that he is used effectively, but exactly where that will be in terms of position is less clear. He has played centrally and on the left so we must assume that’s where he’ll start, but would it surprise anyone if Guardiola came up with some sort of arcane, mathematically complex formation which sees him playing at left-back on a space hopper? No it wouldn’t. More seriously, do City even really need a player like Jack? What does he bring that they do not already have?

Is he worth £100 million? Of course not. Add in his wages and City have blown a whole season’s Premier League money on him. But as I say, these are meaningless numbers. Football’s bizarre transfer system has always been divorced from the rest of reality and City’s financial power, even more so.

At a time when 99% of clubs have no money to spend, this and other big money transfers are clearly an attempt by a few clubs to leverage future success on the back of pandemic poverty. It’s not a good look for the game and raises questions about both the financial and competitive dysfunction of the Premier League and other major European leagues.

None of which has anything to do with Jack, his dancing feet and shiny, floppy hair. And here’s the remarkable thing: as immoral as many think it is to pay £100million for a player and pay him more every hour of every day than someone on minimum wage earns in a whole month, as soon as he crosses the white line, somehow that disappears, at least if he plays well.

Football is brilliant at blotting out all the injustices and inequalities of the world for 90 minutes, perhaps especially where it concerns a super-skilful attractive player. Everything we hate about planet football is all the orbiting space junk, some of which is trivial, some of which is very serious, but when it comes to the game itself, there’s nothing better than a cheeky mutha with an arse like a horse and legs like a pit pony jinking his way through a defence and for that we can forgive or forget almost anything for a while.

He will undoubtedly continue to divide opinion. The best players usually do. But a little bit of the Grealish sexy charm goes a long way. Just entertain us, Jack. Life is too often lived in the half-light of overcast grey skies. Some footballers are deathly dull. So we need you to bring the glitter and the gold to our lives. And no-one would love to do so more than Jack Peter Grealish. We need him now more than ever, and you know what, I think he knows that.

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