Only two years ago Jack Grealish was celebrating promotion to the Premier League. At that point, few thought Grealish would make the step up to the Premier League, let alone make the kind of impact that has most of the country crying out for his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s starting 11 in the opening match of the Euros next weekend.
Following his impressive display against Austria during the week, the very easy to please (just ask Jordan Henderson), Roy Keane waxed lyrical about Grealish. Keane has said before how impressed he has been by the £100m rated Villa player who occupied a role behind Harry Kane during the week. But Keane went a step further, even putting the Villa attacker in the same bracket as Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He (Grealish) makes things happen”, Keane told the ITV audience.
“He has courage and always wants the ball in tight areas.
“Like Cristiano Ronaldo at Portugal, you need players like that in your team. It is brave.”
Few away from Villa Park would have credited Grealish with such a comparison when still in the Championship. He had showed some quality, but like his Villa team, lacked some genuine consistency. For me, the two games that Grealish appeared to come of age were against Villa’s local rivals Birmingham City during the 2018/19 season.
In the home match, the then, newly appointed Aston Villa manager Dean Smith made the decision to push Grealish forward, just behind the lone forward. The new-look Villa team dominated an exciting encounter, with Grealish pulling the strings and finding the net to turn the game on its head before half-time.
The following derby encounter was far more infamous, for all the wrong reasons. It probably brought Grealish back to national attention when a Birmingham City fan entered the field at St Andrews and punched the Villa man from behind. The incident very early in the game had shocked every player on the pitch, but Grealish dusted himself down, cleared his head and put in another match-winning display that was quickly becoming his trademark. In the second half, it was Grealish who broke the deadlock and showed his true character.
In a good England side, Grealish could be one of only a handful of international players who could virtually guarantee his team a goal start – either from something he creates, scores himself, or even from one of the freekicks he wins. There is a reason Grealish has been the most fouled player in the Premier League the past couple of seasons. From the moment he really came into his own under Dean Smith at Villa, Grealish has taken responsibly when things are not going his side’s way.
The run that took Villa to the play-offs in 2018/19 saw their Jack the Lad become head and shoulders the best player outside the Premier League. Stop Grealish and you will halt Villa became the tactic. But even when doubling, trebling up or kicking him up at height, stopping him was easier said than done. Grealish has replicated that form again in the Premier League season just gone. As Liverpool found to their cost in their shock 7-2 defeat to Villa, on his day, Grealish is unplayable.
That is probably how he has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne – brave, clever on the ball, will run at defenders, pull the strings, and does things few players would imagine let alone try. All things that were yet again on display in abundance against Romania. Quick feet, tantalising defenders into a rash challenge to win a penalty. England lacked some real cutting edge and imagination in the final third in the last World Cup, some feel England have several players all with that added quality previously found wanting.
However, the biggest thing that sets Grealish apart from most of those vying to play in the same position as him, they are primarily playing at the best clubs in Europe. Some may say that gives them an edge, but I would suggest Southgate looks past that. Grealish has been putting in top performances and looking like a player worthy of Champions League football for at least the past year in a side outside the top six.
That could provide a much-needed element of surprise from Grealish against those many Champions League defenders England may encounter over the coming weeks, if Southgate, who appears still to be convinced, finally puts his faith in the Villa man as he should.