Jack… keep your eye on the ball and don’t get sidetracked by all the noise and adulation. You see my fellow Brummie, you really can leave a substantial mark on his profession.
The England players strolled out to inspect the Wembley pitch. As always, a camera followed their movements, beaming live pictures to giant TV screens above.
Up popped Kalvin Phillips – cheers cascaded down from the few thousand fans already in place. Declan Rice – cheers. Harry Kane – cheers. As you’d expect, they all got a warm welcome. Then the picture cut to Jack Grealish, smiling as usual in the afternoon sunshine. An extra loud noise greeted his image. But this wasn’t so much a cheer, more the high-pitched yelp you hear from young music fans acclaiming their hero.
Yes, Grealish is a big star now. He’s captured the imagination of the younger generation and the whole football world, not just those dedicated followers at Aston Villa or indeed at Manchester City where he’s made an instant impression. That takes some doing. You must have something special, in the way that Paul Gascoigne did all those years ago.
‘I know I’m not the first to make that comparison and as someone who played with Gazza for England, even shared a room with him on one trip, I can see similarities between the two’
I know I’m not the first to make that comparison and as someone who played with Gazza for England, even shared a room with him on one trip, I can see similarities between the two. Not off the pitch, mind. Gascoigne was a complete one-off. On the pitch, though, there’s a definite resemblance. For a start, it’s that unshakable belief in his own ability. ‘Give me the ball. I’ll make something happen’. It takes an awful lot of courage to keep demanding possession in very tight areas, but Grealish seems to thrive on that responsibility, knowing he’s got the tools to cause any team problems.
That immovable faith has travelled with him to Manchester, which, when you think about it, is quite something given the spectacular talent at the Etihad. I mean, when you’ve got someone like Kevin de Bruyne shouting for the ball, it’s all too easy to automatically pass. Yet the early months at City have revealed no such doffing of caps. Grealish hasn’t looked intimidated one bit by the exalted company.
That said, he has wisely made slight adjustments to his style. No longer does the playmaker hold on to the ball for quite so long, in the way that he did for Villa. That statistic about him being the most fouled player in the Premier League is all well and good but I can’t see Pep Guardiola regarding it as helpful.
I’m sure the City coach has encouraged Grealish to move the ball on a bit quicker, rather than waiting for the tackle and sometimes falling to the ground far too easily. There’s a time and a place for attracting the challenge – when he gets in the penalty area for instance – but outside the box, it’s about fitting in with the system.
‘There’s a time and a place for attracting the challenge – when he gets in the penalty area for instance – but outside the box, it’s about fitting in with the system’
Grealish was the main man at Villa. At City, he’s just another cog in the machine, albeit a very expensive one and his swift appreciation of that role shines a very favourable light on his maturity. Not only will Guardiola be pleased, I bet Gareth Southgate is, too, after an uncertain introduction to the international stage. I remember the player’s full debut against Wales last October when Grealish kept hanging on to the ball, much to the England manager’s frustration.
Commentating from the TV gantry, I could hear Southgate urgently shouting. ‘Pass it! Pass it!’ This wasn’t the style he was after and it took a while after that for Grealish to gain his manager’s trust. But he’s certainly gained it now. The 26-year-old, in fact, now looks like an important member of the starting X1, never mind just the squad. Even better, working under Guardiola at City, he should quickly develop into a more rounded player with a greater understanding of the game.
In short, if Grealish keeps his eye on the ball and doesn’t get sidetracked by all the noise and adulation, my fellow Brummie can leave a substantial mark on his profession. Going further, he might even emulate Gazza by transcending football to become a household name. Those excited squeals at Wembley may only be the start.
Main photos | Matt McNulty, Getty Images