On FA Cup semi-final weekend, my thoughts go back to the Wembley ties from two years ago. Mainly how Reading came so close against Arsenal, but also Aston Villa’s win over Liverpool in which a 19-year-old Jack Grealish was the star of the show on only his fifth senior start for the club. The midfielder never looked overawed by the occasion, playing a part in both of his team’s goals in a 2-1 victory, including getting a fabulous assist for Fabian Delph’s winner.
Grealish had been at Aston Villa since the age of six, a relatively young age to be scouted at, whilst it’s pretty rare for a player to stay at the same academy for such a long period of time. At the age of 16, he was named on the bench for a Premier League fixture against Chelsea. The following year, he was part of the club’s under-19 team that won the 2012–13 NextGen Series (a short-lived European youth competition) scoring in a 3–1 win over Sporting Lisbon in the semi-finals. The winger’s first shot at senior football came in 2013-14 on loan at Notts County, where he got five goals and seven assists in League One. Yet there were still others in Villa’s academy that looked more likely to make the step up to the top-flight. “There seemed to be more buzz about Daniel Johnson, Callum Robinson and Gary Gardner than Jack. When he broke through, that’s when the hype began.” says Villa fan James Rushton from fansite 7500 To Holte.
He had to settle for a number of substitute appearances in claret and blue before Paul Lambert handed him a first start in the FA Cup third round in January 2015, with new boss Tim Sherwood then giving him a first league start in early April. James recalls how lively the youngster looked in his first couple of games: “When he touched the ball he seemed to Immediately want to create”. Then came the aforementioned semi-final, an undoubted breakthrough moment for Grealish. As with any young prospect in this country, the media instantly tipped him for greatness. A ‘tug of war’ ensued between the Republic of Ireland and England over who he would represent at international level. Grealish had played for the former at youth level, but pledged his allegiance to the Three Lions.
Looking back, that was a peak for Grealish. September 2015 saw him score his first senior goal for Villa, but he would make just 16 league appearances that season as the Midlands club were relegated as one of the worst teams in Premier League history. Grealish also picked up an unwanted record, with all 16 of his appearances being defeats – no player has ever been such a ‘bad omen’ for his team in one campaign. Moreover, that expected call-up to the England squad never came. “Jack simply hasn’t had good coaching,” James told me. “Paul Lambert wanted to incubate his talent, while Tim Sherwood wanted to have the team rely on him, then Remi Garde went strong on his behaviour. He hasn’t had consistency in his coaching at all and I believe it has affected him. He was asked to play one way throughout his youth career and at a senior level he was treated in different ways by different managers.”
It wasn’t just on the pitch that Grealish was receiving criticism. Off the pitch, what can only be described as youthful exuberance was getting the better of him. Just three days after the cup semi-final, The Sun published images showing him allegedly inhaling nitrous oxide for recreational purposes. That summer, pictures of the winger sprawled across the road apparently drunk and unconscious whilst on holiday in Tenerife emerged on social media. On both of these occasions, Grealish assured fans and boss Tim Sherwood that it ‘wouldn’t happen again’. Yet only a couple of months later he was pictured in a night club following a 4-0 defeat to Everton and in September of last year he was subject to an internal investigation by Villa following reports of his involvement in an all-night party. Of course, these are things that thousands of other people his age are doing, but Grealish is in a privileged position where he’s a role model, and he was in danger of throwing his career away.
It’s been hoped that a season in the Championship might help the now 21-year-old get back to the level where he was being linked with moves to Europe’s top clubs. He hasn’t set the second tier alight, with Villa spending big but disappointing massively (they sit 12th at the time of writing), but he certainly hasn’t continued a downward spiral either. Grealish has made 29 appearances (20 starts), netted four goals and also been sent off once. Wonder strikes against Wigan and Fulham (below) show that he hasn’t completely lost his touch.
Villa have had five different managers in the three years since Grealish’s league debut, and as James commented on, this lack of consistency can’t have helped his development. In contrast, you look at the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, another two recent English prodigees hyped by the media, and how they’ve been managed by Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. Consistent and confident coaching really does have an effect.
Current Villains boss Steve Bruce had this to say on Grealish after seeing him score in his first start in two months against Fulham on Easter Monday:
“It’s right that we talk about his ability but it’s important he understands that he needs to knuckle down and do the other side of it.
“That’s the hardest road for Jack to go down – to be a top-class professional and be as good as he can.
“If he’s got that and does that then he’s got an outstanding chance.
“If he doesn’t then how often have we seen people who have got talent but end up not getting the best out of themselves.
“He’s got a big 12 months. He burst onto the scene, has got a lot of ability, and he’s got to stick with it.”
These comments suggest that Grealish’s attitude is still a problem. Indeed, only last month he was dropped by the England Under-21s after turning up late for a team meeting. But Bruce is a well-respected manager in the game, and hopefully he can finally be the one to make the youngster knuckle down. “Jack seems to like Bruce’s team and is putting in the hours.” James said. “He needs a lot more confidence and to really kick on and try to develop outside what management are providing, though.”
It seems that staying out of trouble is easier said than done for Jack. But it’s clear that behind the partying, outgoing youngster there is an incredibly talented and technical footballer. Belief in his ability is what’s needed right now, from not only himself but from coaches, fans and the media too. ” I wouldn’t judge Jack at what he can do now, but what he is doing in two to three years time.” says James. Indeed, Grealish is still only 21 years old. He has the chance to get his career back on track and live up to the expectations that many placed on him two years ago. It has the begins of a story very similar to that of Lee Hendrie, another midfielder who came through the Aston Villa academy around 20 years ago. Hendrie had an excessive lifestyle that got out of control, and his career suffered as a result, leading to a drop into non-league, bankruptcy and suicide attempts. One can only hope that Grealish’s story doesn’t end the same way.