Jack Grealish’s transformation has been completed by him earning his first England call-up today.
Following years of disciplinary issues, injuries and frustrating managers, the Aston Villa captain has finally cemented his status as a top-class English player. When looking back at his journey to this point, it’s a remarkable achievement for him to get this far.
The now 24-year-old made his debut for Villa as an 88th-minute substitute in a 4-0 defeat to Manchester City on 7 May 2014 after spending the first half of the season on loan at League Two outfit Notts County. The Magpies were in a relegation battle at that point and Grealish’s dazzling performances were credited by fans for guiding them away from the Conference trap door.
While Villa fans were excited by these developments at Meadow Lane, they remembered the likes of Mikey Drennan who had impressed on loan and but that came to nothing for the first team. Their concerns were well placed as while Grealish put in many dazzling performances off the bench, he lacked end product.
He developed a reputation for drawing fouls early on in his career. He first captured headlines in a 2-1 victory over Steve Bruce’s Hull City at Villa Park in August 2014 not due to his performances, but because of how much he was kicked. Hull gave away 10 fouls in that match, most of which came against Grealish.
Despite getting regular football off the bench, it was a surprise start in an FA Cup semi-final in April 2015 that really put him in the sights of England’s elite. As an experiment, manager Tim Sherwood played Grealish in the 10 role for the first time and Liverpool couldn’t handle him. The youngster played a key role in setting up Christian Benteke’s goal and he attracted many admirers in the press.
BBC reporter Phil McNulty noted that Grealish “played with a calm that belied his years in this hothouse atmosphere”. Suddenly, he was the subject of a tug-of-war between England and the Republic of Ireland for his international allegiances and was getting a £60 million price tag slapped on him.
He made a similarly bright start under Sherwood for the 2015/16 season, scoring his first goal in a 3-2 defeat to Leicester City. However, reflective of the club’s situation as a whole, it would all come tumbling down.
Sherwood was sacked and replaced by Remi Garde in October 2015. After an impressive 0-0 draw with Manchester City in his first match, his second was a disastrous 4-0 defeat to Everton.
Following this defeat, Grealish asked Garde if he could stay in Liverpool that night. The Frenchman permitted it, but when news of his partying antics hit the press the next day Garde was livid. Grealish was banished to the reserves and only played in three more games for Garde that season.
Grealish had been linked with much of England’s elite in the summer of 2015, but by January his suitors were much less glamorous. Instead of Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United, it was Steve Evans at Leeds United. While they can attract top European talent today, back then they were floundering in Championship midtable mediocrity so Grealish declined the move.
Once Garde was dismissed in March 2016, Grealish returned to the team under caretaker boss Eric Black, again making appearances off the bench. He didn’t start a match again in the Premier League until August 2019.
The starting berth was returned to Grealish by new boss Roberto Di Matteo in the Championship, but it was soon thrown back into doubt once the Italian was sacked after one win in 12 games. Once disciplinarian Steve Bruce was appointed as his replacement, many feared for Grealish, due to his playboy mentality.
By the time Villa played Nottingham Forest in February 2017, Grealish had already been embroiled in a number of off-the-pitch scandals. As well as the party in Liverpool, where he had been pictured inhaling nitrous oxide in 2014 and had been found passed out on the streets of Tenerife in 2015. He had also had a party shut down by police in October 2016 and had been given a three-match ban for stamping on Conor Coady earlier in the season. When he picked up two cheap yellow cards at the City Ground as Villa lost 2-1, that was the final straw for Bruce. He only made one start between then and a defeat to Fulham in April.
To his credit, Grealish took his dismissal well. He knuckled down and began to work harder and more professionally. He grabbed one of the goals of the season in the 3-1 defeat at Craven Cottage and gifted Newcastle United the league title with his goal against Brighton on the final day.
Yet again though, disaster was around the corner.
Grealish was set to go into the 2017/18 season as Villa’s star attacker. Jonathan Kodjia was injured and Scott Hogan was in poor form, so Grealish was prepared to take centre stage.
He was given the number 10 shirt and a starting role in pre-season. However, a seemingly innocuous tackle in the final friendly match saw his career in doubt again. When challenging for an aerial ball with Tom Cleverley, the Watford man’s elbow dug into Grealish’s side and sent him writhing in pain on the floor. Upon examination at hospital, his kidney was found to have been cut in two places. The freak injury cost him the first three months of the season, but Grealish was fearful it would cost him his life.
Ever since, Grealish has credited the injury with focusing his mind. Once he had recovered from this, he returned to action with the U23 side. He made his first team return against Sheffield Wednesday in November and made his first start back in a defeat to Derby County six games later. He cemented himself as a first team regular again, drawing admirers for his long-range volley in a win over Cardiff City in April as well as his performance in a 4-1 win over Wolves a month earlier.
Grealish was heavily linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur following Villa’s play-off final defeat to Fulham, but he stayed and signed a new five-year deal at his boyhood club. He continued his fine form until picking up an ankle injury against West Bromwich Albion in December. This kept him out for three months, but it was a blessing in disguise.
O'Captain My Captain
When Grealish returned against promotion-chasing Derby County in March, Villa were in a desperate state. They were 14th in the Championship and Dean Smith was feeling the heat, despite being appointed as head coach just six months earlier.
For his return, Smith opted to give Grealish the captain’s armband for the first time. While it seemed he was just lapping up the occasion at the time, it turned out to be a masterstroke. Grealish provided an immediate boost, scoring yet another volley as Villa rode out 4-0 winners over Derby. The Villa fan kept the armband for the Second City Derby against Birmingham City in the next game and despite being assaulted by a Blues fan, still scored the winning goal.
From here, Grealish has carried on being Villa’s main man. He carried them during a 10 game winning run and promotion in 2019 and ramped up his productivity in the Premier League. Around the halfway mark for the season, Villa began to rely more and more on their star man. He scored screamers against Manchester United, Burnley and Southampton as Villa’s form slowly began to drop off.
Once Grealish’s productivity dried up in February, Villa’s form nosedived. He didn’t score or assist between their matches against Southampton and Arsenal, a run of eleven matches, Despite this, it was his midseason form that kept Villa in the fight for survival and it was fitting that his goal against West Ham United confirmed Villa’s survival on the final day.
Even while his goal contributions were poor however, Grealish still stood out as a player who could singlehandedly pick a team up. He would find passes and make runs that few other players in England could. Over the course of the season, Grealish made the second most chances in the Premier League behind only Kevin De Bruyne. He even made one more chance than Lionel Messi last season.
His versatility in playing style as well as positioning has made him stand out last season. He began the season in the central role he has held since 2015 but began to drift out wide as Villa’s wingers underperformed. He also stood out as the only midfielder or winger in the country who was effective at both dribbling and passing, laying waste to the myth of him just being a dribbler who draws fouls.
Jack Grealish has earned his England call-up through his wonderful performances this season, but his remarkable growth as a player and a man is what makes his tale so endearing. He has gone from a youngster banished to the reserves for disobedience, to a hospital bed fearing for his life and now finally a top-level Premier League player and England international.