SHORT of some fiendish combination of brainwashing, kidnapping, bribery, rule-bending, and sending time’s arrow into reverse, Ireland’s only hope of seeing Jack Grealish grace the Aviva Stadium in the summer is if England top their Euro 2020 group and so contest a round-of-16 game in Dublin, potentially against Germany.
There’s a few ‘ifs’ in there, to be sure, not least of which is the fact that Grealish has yet to receive an England call-up.
But unless Gareth Southgate is prepared to deny the evidence of his own eyes, a senior debut for the Three Lions is surely only a matter of when, not if, for one of the most compelling and complete players in the Premier League this season.
We Irish can only torture ourselves with thoughts of what might have been.
Flicking back through the files, I alight on a report in this newspaper from August 2015, when Martin O’Neill was naming his provisional squad for the Euro 2016 qualifiers, away to Gibraltar and at home to Georgia.
(How things change, eh?) Even by that stage, the question of Grealish’s international football identity had become a wearyingly repetitive and inconclusive subject for debate whenever the Ireland manager came before the media, but, on this occasion, O’Neill sounded a cautiously optimistic note.
Recent talks with Jack and his Da had been “pretty fruitful,” according to O’Neill.
And he went on: “He and his father agreed that it’s about time they were going to do something about it. Fine, if he’s worth waiting for in that sense, not necessarily for me, but for the future of ourselves, then so be it. He’s got age on his side and he’s a very decent talent. I’m pleased I’ve had the conversation. They were receptive to what I was saying.”
Ah, but what bitter fruit that turned out to be.
Just the following month, Grealish was announcing: “I have decided to give my allegiance to England. It was not an easy decision, as Ireland has a special place with me, through my family. However, I have decided to represent my country of birth.”
I certainly don’t blame Martin O’Neill for this one that got away. Nor do I blame Grealish, any more than I blamed Declan Rice when he had to choose.
When you have an English head and an Irish heart, or vice versa, and you’re a young player having his ear bent by all sorts of competing interests, these decisions are always going to be much more complicated than a straightforward case of career advancement, though that must inevitably play its part, too.
As things turned out, career advancement wasn’t exactly straightforward for Grealish, whose occasionally unwise recreational activities, splattered all over the tabloids, for a while created a worrying impression of a prodigious talent that could easily go to waste, an old and all-too-familiar narrative in the game.
But Grealish, as he does on the pitch, nimbly sidestepped the pitfalls, and especially since March of last year — when he was made captain at Aston Villa and appeared inspired by the challenge — he has gone from strength to strength, first as a driving force in the club’s promotion to the Premier League, and now, even more impressively, as one of the top-flight’s very best players, despite being in a team that is struggling to keep its head above the relegation zone.
If Villa do stay up, they will owe an enormous debt to the hometown kid, who, as a leader by example, has scored seven goals and provided five assists in the campaign so far.
But such stand-out stats only tell part of the tale.
At 24, Grealish has clearly matured, on and off the pitch, but there’s still something infectiously youthful about his demeanour in the Villa shirt — which his penchant for junior-sized shinpads and rolled-down socks does nothing to diminish — and a sheer joy in his play that seems to owe as much to the schoolyard as it does the senior training ground.
His dribbling skills are a delight — he ghosts by players as if they don’t exist — and, if he chose to stand still, put a foot on the ball and invite a challenge, he could hardly be more successful in winning free-kicks.
Little wonder then that his close control and will-o-the-wisp movement make him one of the most-fouled players in the Premier League.
But while he clearly has the talent to do so much on his own — and the necessary work ethic to showcase that ability — one of the most improved aspects of his game is his decision-making, informed by an acute footballing intelligence that tells him when to keep and when to release.
And when he does pick out a pass, whether simple or inventive, his weight of delivery is invariably immaculate.
Add in an eye for a spectacular strike and, for all Grealish’s loyalty to the club he has been with and supported all his life, it’s hardly any surprise that, as the weeks and months go by, Villa are facing what increasingly looks like a losing battle to keep their hot property beyond the end of this season.
And so the will-he-won’t-he saga has moved from the international to the club arena, with tomorrow’s visit of Spurs to Villa Park a reminder that, but for a failed transfer bid two years ago, Grealish could now be lining out for Jose Mourinho’s team.
Pep Guardiola has declared himself a “big fan” of Grealish, while noting that Manchester United are also keeping close tabs on him.
(A recent newspaper report in England kicked off by suggesting that the player was open to a move that would take him “to the next level.”)
A footballer’s life podcast: 1. Graham Cummins
Whether United, in their current incarnation, are at Grealish’s level might be a more germane point.
Anyway, those of us with green-tinted glasses can now only watch entranced, but helpless, as his star continues to rise.
And on those long dark nights of the soul, when sticking red-hot knitting needles in my eyes no longer works, I find the only thing that delivers just the right dose of exquisite pain is to fantasise about an Irish team going to Bratislava next month with Declan Rice and Jack Grealish on board.
Mad about the boy is right, and in more ways than one.