Jack Grealish: The one that got away

So he’s finally hit the road, Jack, and he won’t come back no more, no more, no more...

Jack Grealish’s decision to pledge his future to England has left the expected cacophony ringing in his ears on this side of the Irish Sea, and the blame game – at which we’re acknowledged to be global masters — in full swing. (And is that the additional sound of schadenfreude we hear from across the border? Indeed it is).

So let’s get the finger-pointing out of the way first.

It’s the FAI’s fault because, well, it’s always the FAI’s fault.

It’s Martin O’Neill and/or Roy Keane’s fault because they were the ones minding the shop when the fella did a runner.

It’s Tim Sherwood’s fault because the Villa manager has been whispering in the player’s ear.

It’s the agent’s fault because agents don’t do much else apart from whisper in someone’s ear.

And then, of course, there’s the Da because, after all, we all know what Philip Larkin says your parents do to you.

Somewhere lost in all of this has been the only voice which ultimately counts — that of Jack Grealish.

Yesterday we finally heard from him and his statement was brief and to the point: “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 the country of my birth.”

Not much there to help the finger-pointers or the conspiracy theorists, sadly. You’d almost have to conclude it even has the banal ring of truth about it.

Not that O’Neill won’t have residual questions to answer about the one that got away. Cast your mind back to April, for example, when he was ruling out any chance of Grealish, even if he was available, being thrown in against Scotland.

“It’s too big, it’s massive,” he said. “To throw him into a game like that would be tough.”

But within a matter of weeks — as the player’s profile suddenly sky-rocketed at Aston Villa — the Ireland manager was singing a very different tune as, at almost the 11th hour, he tried but failed to add him to his squad for that very game. At least, to his credit, O’Neill did not try to disguise the U-turn.

“Of course, yes, the last four or five weeks have made a big difference obviously to Jack’s career and obviously to my thinking,” he said. “If he had not been involved in these five or six games, then I’m sure that the game against Scotland would have been rather tougher at that time. Now that he’s getting used to it, it’s a different decision.”

Making up for lost time, O’Neill didn’t let it lie there but when, as recently as August, the Ireland manager encouragingly reported that he had conducted “fruitful” talks with Jack, his father Kevin and the player’s agent, he was also quick to add that he felt the player and his representatives would still want to hear what Roy Hodgson had to say.

And where O’Neill had little option but to dangle a carrot — which, in the Irish context, meant quicker access to international caps and the potential for more of them — Hodgson, from the enviable position of strength of being manager of a country with Euro qualification already in the bag, could favour the stick, wondering impatiently in public why it was taking so long for the young man to make up his mind.

Well, now he has, and when all the twists and turns of a protracted saga have finally been exhumed and exhausted — and the blame apportioned every which way — it’s hard to escape the simple truth contained inGrealish’s own words: An English boy, with Irish blood, has opted to play for the country in which he was born and bred.

Watching Grealish come off the bench to help change the game and inspire Villa to victory in the League Cup derby win over Birmingham City last week was to be reminded of what the fuss is all about. Despite his urchin demeanour, he looks the real deal, a gifted, creative, confident, bordering on cocky playmaker with an imaginative eye for goal — precisely the kind of quality footballer the senior Irish squad is crying out for.

True, at the game’s highest level, he is still only on the lower rungs, with no guarantee that he will fulfil his rich promise. After all, the last young Irish-eligible player to excite this level of hype and hope was one Stephen Ireland. But, right now, there can be no gainsaying the fact that England’s gain is Ireland’s loss, although just how much Grealish’s country of birth will benefit from his talent remains to be seen.

Despite football’s strange penchant for infantilization — with 30-somethings routinely referring to teen- and twenty-somethings as “young boys” and “kids” (with whom, of course, ye cannae win anything) — the fact is that, at 20 years old, Jack Grealish is old enough to have taken all the advice and entreaties on board and finally made up his own mind about what he thinks is best for his head, his heart and his feet. (Not to mention his profile and all the benefits that being a successful England international can bring in train). But he is still young enough to know that the hardest work and the toughest challenges all lie ahead.

The best of luck to him.


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