LIAM MACKEY: We need to talk about Jack

The news that Jack Grealish is to be a character’s name in the next outing by thriller writer and Aston Villa fan Lee Child added an appropriately dramatic twist to the week’s spiciest narrative.

Then again, on the literary front, headlines such as ‘Grealish Hammered By Trolls’ might have had the uninitiated thinking the poor fellow had already been hauled into a Tolkienesque fantasy yarn, with unhappy results.

The reference, however, was to the fact that some disgruntled Irish supporters took umbrage at the player’s decision to turn down Martin O’Neill’s offer of a place in his latest squad.

And so, courtesy of the traditional meeja — apparently unashamed about being reduced to scooping up the droppings from the Twittersphere — we were treated to such asterisk-heavy apercus as, ‘F***off you British c***’ and ‘F*** you ye English p****’, as part of pretty widespread coverage of the “vile” Jack attacks.

I have to say that if such an apparently endless source of raw material had been available to me when I was starting out as a hack back in the mists, how much easier life would have been. Except somehow I don’t think my then editor would have reacted with unalloyed enthusiasm had I popped into his office to tell him that my big idea for the next day’s paper was a story based on a ‘vox pop’ I had conducted with some lads I happened to run into in the pub just before closing time.

Social media, one feels obliged to say, can be a great source of illuminating and entertaining material. (I particularly recommend the 350-year-old tweets of the great Samuel Pepys, while I was also much taken recently with a link to a delightful clip of a tubby corgi dog negotiating a flight of stairs). But, ye gods, you don’t half have to wade through veritable mudflats of bullshit to mine the relatively few golden nuggets on offer.

I hope that Jack Grealish is immune to the nasties, although it’s only human nature to be put out when the world is throwing brickbats rather than bouquets in your face. But at least he’s had no shortage of the latter in recent times, and well deserved they are too. (And, for the record, it was actually on Twitter too that someone made the very valid point that criticism of him is a bit rich coming from people who were up in arms about Aiden McGeady getting booed in Glasgow)

We need to talk about Jack

As a professional footballer, albeit still a relative novice, Grealish must also have some grounding in the routine cruelties of the game, if only via the second-hand experience of seeing what some of his fellow pros have had to put up with in the exposed and unforgiving setting of the arena. And this kind of ‘trolling’ was on the go long before anyone could hurl dog’s abuse from the sanctuary of their smart phone and the anonymity of an ‘amusing’ handle.

For example, recalling his struggles to impress in the team when he first played for Millwall, Richie Sadlier once told me: “Match days would never be enjoyable. There was the walk from your car to reception, maybe no more than 80 yards, but full of people. When someone is a yard from you and they look you in the eye and call you a ‘useless c***’, that’s a different experience from 3,000 people chanting ‘shit, shit, shit’ at you.”

With social media, I suppose, you can get the worst of both worlds.

The Twitter storm around Grealish has at least served one useful purpose by sharpening the focus on the dubious wisdom of trying to call him up for a friendly against England in the first place. I wrote here the other day that Martin O’Neill can’t be blamed for seeking to strike while the player is hot. And, furthermore, it is to that manager’s credit that he wasn’t shy about owning up in public to the radical extent to which his opinion had changed about Grealish since that breakthrough display in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool.

But, quite apart from the question of the penny dropping too late for the Irish management and thus perhaps contributing to the air of 11th-hour panic which seemed to surround the failed call-up this week, it doesn’t take an excessive amount of reflection to see why the idea of debuting at senior level in a game between the two countries for which their boy would still be eligible at the final whistle, might not have seemed like the most inviting of propositions to the Grealish camp.

You might as well invite the child of divorcing parents to join the warring couple in the solicitor’s office and declare, ‘hey, it’s make your mind up time, kiddo’. And even if the cheers would surely have drowned out the boos at the Aviva for the new boy in green, the whole circus surrounding his participation would have been so off the scale as to risk damaging rather than enhancing the prospects of his finally going green for good.

As Tim Sherwood and others have been at pains to point out in recent days, Jack Grealish still has a way to go before convincing that his stellar performances towards the end of this season are a sure sign of more, and even better, things to come.

But right now the omens could hardly be better, which only makes the possibility that he might yet slip through green fingers all the harder to bear. But at least the jury is still out on the final verdict — and, for all that the blame game looks set to rumble on for weeks and maybe even months to come, the reality is that we’re only here because Jack’s not here. Yes, he’s a mere 19 but he is not a child. And it’s ultimately up to him — not Martin O’Neill, Roy Hodgson or even the player’s influential father Kevin — to decide where he wants to hang his international hat.

It’s a decision with potentially huge ramifications on both a personal and professional level, and he’s entitled to take his time making it, however unpalatable that idea is on this side of the Irish Sea where a young player as naturally gifted and confident and eye-catching as Grealish doesn’t come along too often. Indeed, probably the last time Irish football got itself so excited about a breakthrough star of this magnitude was back when one Stephen Ireland was pulling up trees.

And, as you might recall, that story didn’t exactly produce the happy ending we were all hoping for.

When Dev was trolled from the terrace

We need to talk about Jack

As already noted here today, there were trolls on the terraces long before technology allowed them to bellyache from the comfort of the sofa.

And my earliest exposure to the phenomenon at Milltown and Dalymount and Lansdowne Road is a reminder that the asterisks, as it were, flew thick and heavy in the air then too.

But occasionally something of a more sophisticated hue cut through the noise.

To sidestep into the gaelic code for a moment, I’m reminded of one of the great sustained passages of terrace invective which was said to have attended the occasion of Eamon De Valera being invited to throw in the ball at the start of a big match.

Just as he did, so the story goes, an unfriendly voice from the crowd was heard to roar out: “G’wan Dev, why don’t you throw in your own two while you’re at it and make a pawn shop of the game like you have of the country.”

Many moons ago, I included the doubtless apocryphal yarn in a column I submitted to the Irish Press. But when the piece appeared in the paper the next day, the anecdote was mysteriously absent.

Not even an asterisk, like.

There’s a quare one, eh?


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