IN many ways it would have been the perfect way to go. The boyhood Aston Villa fan, turned Holte End hero, hoisted onto the shoulders of the very supporters he once prided himself on being a part of.
Although only taken a few months ago, the images of ‘Super Jack’ after the Villa’s Play-Off semi-final triumph over Middlesbrough have become somewhat iconic, and show just how adored he has become in the second city. Sam Johnstone, John Terry, James Chester and Robert Snodgrass enjoyed superb campaigns in a claret and blue shirt last year, but when those several thousand fans flooded onto the pitch that May evening, they had eyes for only one man. A player who, just a year prior, was considered by many outside of Villa Park to be unscrupulous and more concerned about his social life than his fledgling football career. Those exuberant fans, who paraded their hero around the stadium had no doubt that he would, in just 11 days, be guiding them back to where they belonged – the Premier League. Alas, it was not meant to be.
It was not for a lack of trying, however, and Villa’s best moments in that agonising 1-0 defeat to Fulham at Wembley came at the hands of their number 10. His first-half volley was perhaps the Villans’ best chance of the game, while the 62nd-minute slaloming dribble nearly went down as one of the greatest goals in the club’s history. The Fulham defence, so fearful of Grealish’s capabilities opted, as many sides did last season, to physically stop him. Had Ryan Fredrick’s blatant stamp been noticed in the game’s early proceedings he would have undoubtedly been given his marching orders. How that could have altered proceedings.
Yet, Fulham emerged victorious and Villa’s players were left looking forlorn at the full-time whistle, none more so than Grealish, who, even then, may have pondered whether he would ever again pull on the shirt of his beloved club. Within weeks of the Wembley showdown it seemed impossible that the Midlands club could hold onto their most valuable asset as the truth of their crippling financial burden came to light. Initial speculation linked the Villa star with moves to Leicester City, Everton and even Manchester United, but as the transfer window dragged on further it became clear that Tottenham Hotspur were Grealish’s most vehement suitors.
It demonstrates just how much Grealish’s game was refined and enhanced during the 2017/18 season. Gone were the inconsistencies, the petulance and the self-destructive nature that has previously hindered the midfielder’s development. In their place, confidence, motivation and serenity oozed from the Villa number 10. Converted by manager, Steve Bruce, into an attacking central midfielder, Grealish has blossomed and welcomed the responsibility of guiding the Midlands club back to the Premier League. Seeing more of the ball has allowed him the opportunity to regularly glide past defenders and earn countless free-kicks. In an almost George Best-esque manner, Grealish seems to invite tackles then flick the ball away from his opponent at the last second. During February’s second-city derby he alone earned his side seven free-kicks. In years gone by, the Brummy would often have grown frustrated when fouled and consequently lashed out. Against Wolves in October 2016, Grealish was punished for an off-the-ball stamp on Conor Coady, which resulted in a three-game suspension for the Villa man.
As well as removing the impurities from his game, Grealish has developed his skillset, which now matches any player in the Championship, and has started to provide game-changing moments. In April, his volley against Cardiff recharged Villa’s flickering hopes of automatic promotion, while his inch-perfect cross against Leeds in the same month set up Villa’s only goal of the game. It’s not only in the big moments that ‘Super Jack’ has become so much more dependable. Now a tireless worker, capable of administering rigorous tackles, he often wins possession and drives at the opposition, invariably setting-up a Villa attack or being fouled. While not a decisive moment in a match, his ability to move the Villans up the pitch was invaluable during the club’s run-in last year.
Both on and off the pitch, there seems to have been a change in attitude from Grealish. Every Villa fan will remember the mortifying images of the youngster while on holiday in Tenerife, and that infamous night out in Manchester following a defeat to Everton in 2015, which resulted in him being banished from the first-team squad. Less than a year later Grealish again was making all the wrong headlines for attending a rowdy hotel party which was forcibly shut down by police in the early hours of the morning and ultimately saw the midfielder fined by the club. So far had Grealish once fallen from grace at Villa Park, he was even linked with a loan move to Leeds United in January 2017.
During those rough patches, the midfielder was often lambasted in the press, perceived as arrogant and egotistical – admittedly the low-hanging socks and slicked-back hair didn’t help his cause. The youngster’s international leanings also didn’t endear him to everyone – not least in Ireland. Some viewed his decision to declare for England as a sign that Grealish thought he had made it after just a handful of encouraging performances. His critics may have afforded themselves a wry smile then, when a year later, Jack was playing in the Championship, having been relegated with the worst record from a player in a single Premier League season, losing all 16 games.
Perhaps that is why Grealish was so inspired last season. It wasn’t a case of wanting the Villans to gain promotion, it was a necessity. Consequently, in 2017/18, after years of frustration and disappointment, Jack Grealish the man emerged. Bruce has regularly spoken since of the youngster’s commitment to training, and the fruits of that labour were evident on the pitch, as he – at time single-handedly – drove Villa’s promotion bid. Motivated, leaner and fitter, the midfielder reversed a career that was beginning to wane, and became one of England’s most promising young talents. It was no surprise therefore, that the man who has most heavily invested in developing homegrown talent firmly set his sights on capturing Grealish. Had Daniel Levy not toyed with Villa, attempting to benefit from their financial meltdown, then Mauricio Pochettino may have secured the acquisition he so ardently yearned for.
Instead, following repeated spurned offers from North London, Grealish remained in the Midlands, again ready to plot another promotion tilt. Yet now, more than ever, the pressure is heightened around a player who, at just 22, is considered to be the linchpin behind any potential success his club could enjoy this year. The departure of players such as Terry and Snodgrass means Grealish must shoulder the leadership responsibilities normally entrusted to much more senior professionals. While his performances last year were admirable, recreating that again over the course of a season is an entirely more arduous task. The expectation surrounding him has increased astronomically in little more than half a season. So high is his stock right now, former Blackpool and Blackburn boss, Michael Appleton, claimed last week on BBC Radio 5 Live that Tottenham should have paid ‘whatever the price’ to prise Grealish from his boyhood club.
This is a different ball game for ‘Super Jack’ – who is now seen in some quarters as an England international in the waiting and capable of playing in the Champions League. With that in mind, anything less than an outstanding season in England’s second tier this season will be seen as substandard for Villa’s number 10. Should he need any additional motivation for the campaign ahead, he need only cast an eye down the road to West Bromwich Albion, where the brightest product from their youth system had his head so infamously turned by Tottenham two years ago. Saido Berahino’s late summer move looked only hours away from completion before Spurs failed to produce the required cash to finalise the deal. Sound familiar? Consequently, a promising career has spiralled so alarmingly out of control he now finds himself unable to compete for a starting birth in the Championship. This campaign Grealish must prove that last season was no fluke, no flash in the pan, and more a glimpse at what to expect from a future Premier League star.
Should he excel as expected, then Grealish has the opportunity to become the first boyhood Villa fan to capture the hearts of the Holte End since Ian Taylor. For the first time in decades, a group of supporters who have become so dejected and embittered may have finally found hope in ‘one of their own’. While Olof Mellberg, Gareth Barry and Christian Benteke have pulled on the heartstrings of those wearing claret and blue they could never have achieved the level of adoration that could await Grealish come May. It is also, perhaps, one of the many reasons why remaining at Villa Park could benefit the midfielder in the long run. Those in the Holte End will overlook a misplaced pass, a moment of petulance or even a run of poor performances much more readily than a set of fans wanting to see a return for their £30 million price tag. Unlike at Tottenham, Grealish’s place in Bruce’s starting XI is a formality and rather than exhausting all his efforts to earn the respect of Pochettino, the 22-year-old can spend the next 12 months again honing his skillset, adding an extra layer of polish to an already sparkling arsenal of skills. Despite the exuberance around B6 that Grealish is, for now, remaining in claret and blue, there seems a sense of inevitability that this will be his last season at Villa Park. Assuming he continues on this upward trajectory, then regardless of Villa’s position next summer, their prize asset will almost certainly be afforded the transfer he, in all probability, secretly desires.
In the meantime, the Villans have emerged from the most turbulent of off-seasons in a remarkably strong position. Once it looked as if a cut-price deal for Grealish could help pay next month’s wages, now they have shown their star man will not be sold for a penny under his asking price. If Grealish has his heart set on Champions League football, he must now prove he is truly worth the exorbitant fee it will cost to pry him from his home city. The youngster’s start to the campaign has been solid, if not yet spectacular – perhaps the ruminants of the failed transfer that he, and everyone else, thought would happen are still hanging over him. Spurs will undoubtedly keep an eye on his progress and how he could perhaps fit into their system next season. A long-term replacement for Moussa Dembele? A return to his traditional position on the wing? Or even in the hole behind Harry Kane? While a manager as talented as Pochettino would almost certainly get the tactical mechanics right to allow Grealish to prosper, perhaps Tottenham is not the most ideal location for a player clearly excelling in a 4-3-3 shape. Should Grealish depart next summer he may find a more natural transition at Anfield. A player once considered lethargic and unreliable could find himself suitably at home in Jurgen Klopp’s high-energy, fluid and offensive system. Similarly to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Grealish may enjoy pressing high, driving forward with the ball and linking-up with talented attacking players.
For now however, his focus remains on Villa’s start to the season. After their Wembley woes last year, Bruce will be pleased with his side’s start to the campaign. Considering they face no sides relegated from the Premier League or any of the top eight from last year in the opening two months of the season, he will know how important it is to start positively. Winning breeds confidence and confidence is vital for any side with ambitions of promotion. Who knows, perhaps Jack could again finish this season being carried off on the shoulders of those adoring fans. Now wouldn’t that be a real fairytale ending.