Liam Mackey: Irish heart, English head

Glass half-empty? Jack Grealish is no closer to declaring for the Republic of Ireland.

Glass half-full? Jack Grealish is no further away from doing so either.

Or, at least, not much.

The irony of yesterday’s drama — the whole ‘will he-won’t he/now you see him-now you don’t’ rollercoaster which preceded Martin O’Neill’s squad announcement — is that Grealish himself was perhaps the only still point in the swirling chaos.

Everything else might have changed since his breakthrough FA Cup semi-final display against Liverpool — not least, conspicuously, Martin O’Neill’s opinion of the tyro’s ability to handle the big occasion — but the fundamental position held by Grealish, and his father Kevin, remains now as it was then and, furthermore, as it was back in March when Jack told the nation at the televised FAI Awards that he would be taking a year out of international football to concentrate on his club career with Aston Villa.

So, yes, yesterday was a bad day for Martin O’Neill and Irish football, but only in so far as any day on which a rare talent like Grealish declines an offer to pull on the green shirt, is a bad day.

Indeed, for all the uncertainty of the hours leading up to O’Neill’s clarification, it could have been a much worse day — especially if the manager had lived down to those baleful predictions that he was going to unilaterally call up the player and, in so doing, ramp up the pressure in order to force a response.

That would have been an unforgivably high-risk strategy and one that could have brought us to a premature end-game in the Grealish saga that would have done neither side any favours.

But if it was right and proper and wise that O’Neill consulted the player and his Dad first, it’s still not entirely clear why he thought it best left until the 11th hour, despite his attempts — in which he referenced his “gut feelings” — at explaining his strategy yesterday.

Fortunately, the Grealish camp appear to have taken the approach in good spirits, just as — irrespective of what Eamon Dunphy might say — they seem not to have been even slightly put out by Roy Keane’s sardonic aside about the father’s procrastination or O’Neill’s more recent questioning of the son’s readiness for a crunch Euro qualifier.

Not that the manager really needed to make those remarks at all. They fed the presses, thanks very much, but some more anodyne stuff along the the lines of how he’s a fine young player and, yes, we’d be delighted to have him on board when he’s ready, might have been a touch more diplomatic, if nothing else.

But, again, there’s nothing emanating from the Grealish camp to suggest the remarks were interpreted as a deal-breaker or anything even close. In fact, if O’Neill has missed a significant trick in the whole saga, it was back this time last year when it seems the player would have responded positively to a call-up that never came for the end of season games in the States.

All is very different now. And if O’Neill can’t be criticised for opting to strike when the player is hot, then neither can a suddenly in-demand 19-year-old be vilified for delaying on a decision which will have enormous implications not only for his career but for his whole life.

No-one close to Grealish doubts the sincerity of his Irish allegiance but for a footballer who is also English-born and bred, the lure of a nation which makes a habit of qualification for the world’s greatest stages — even if they then invariably crash and burn — is not to be lightly dismissed.

In the end, it may come down to an internal battle between Irish heart and English head. Yesterday, the latter might seem to have taken a narrow lead — and Roy Hodgson is sure to be watched closely for any response — but the ball is still very much in play.


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