It’s impossible not to feel a twinge of bitterness whenever Jack Grealish’s name is mentioned.
Whenever he drifts past a defender, finds a teammate with a piercing pass or grabs a crucial goal in Villa’s fight for Premier League survival.
For an Ireland supporter, it’s hard not to imagine, what if?
Memories flood back of him in green, scoring for Republic of Ireland Under-21s, accepting his Player of the Year award, but ultimately choosing England, the country of his birth, over Ireland, whom he had represented at underage level.
We had seen it previously with Everton defender Michael Keane and we’d see it again on perhaps an even larger scale with West Ham’s Declan Rice.
There’s no question about it though, Jack Grealish is the player Ireland will rue losing the most.
It’s hard to envision where Aston Villa would be now but for the brilliance of Grealish this season. They may not have even made it back to the Premier League had it not been for the influence of their captain.
Nine goals and five assists are impressive, but they don’t tell the full story of the 24-year-old’s importance to his club. Whether he can drag Villa from the depths of relegation or not, his future is, with all due respect to Aston Villa, destined for the bigger stage.
It’s been five years since Grealish decided that his international future lay with England and not Ireland.
He had represented the Boys in Green 19 times at underage level and had just been awarded the U21 player of the year, promising that he would be back playing for Ireland. Just two months later, he had selected England.
There’s no question that Grealish felt an Irishness growing up, he played Gaelic football with Warwickshire and his family had a rich Irish heritage, like many in Birmingham.
Should more have been done to persuade Grealish to stay? Perhaps. He did reportedly turn down a call-up to the senior squad in October of 2014 and again in May of 2015.
Was he ready before that? You could argue yes. He had impressed on loan at League One Notts County and was in and around the Villa first-team upon his return to the club.
Maybe it is indicative of a wider issue at Irish senior level. The blooding of youngsters under the past few regimes has been far from a regular occurrence.
Wales destroyed Ireland in a UEFA Nations League game in 2018 with Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu starting in midfield. At the time, he hadn’t started a game at club level.
Yet still, they felt he was ready.
Current Ireland manager Stephen Kenny feels similarly.
Speaking to Eamon Dunphy’s The Stand podcast last year, the former Dundalk boss outlined that he believes Grealish and Rice, should have been fast-tracked to the senior setup, long before their respective moves to England.
“If there was a better relationship at the time between under-15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and senior managers, you would feel that both Jack Grealish and Declan Rice would definitely be playing for Ireland now,” Kenny said.
“They would have been fast-tracked earlier and into the first team earlier in competitive (games).”
But then comes the argument, at 19-years of age was Grealish ready for first-team action with Ireland?
“Jack Grealish is an outstanding player,” said Kenny at the time, “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to work (that) out.”
Two years later and history would repeat itself with Declan Rice. Ireland all the way up at underage level. U21 Player of the Year too. The West Ham man even got as far as a senior international.
Still though, he chose England.
Mistakes weren’t learned from the Grealish situation. You could probably even argue Rice was more equipped to first-team football at that stage of his career than the Aston Villa man.
The opportunity even arose to give Rice a competitive game (Moldova away springs to mind) however it never happened.
With James McCarthy’s injury and Glenn Whelan getting on in years, the holding midfield spot would have been perfect for Rice and could’ve been his for the foreseeable.
He wouldn’t have proven the transformative figure Grealish could have been, however. Together, they would have made up an impressive midfield, and yes, Rice’s decision will be rued for years to come, but not in the way Grealish’s will be.
Grealish’s star continues to ascend in the Premier League, even if minor infractions occasionally besmirch him, with his ability to create and take the game by the scruff of the neck the exact feature Irish teams of late have been missing.
Especially now as Kenny takes up the reigns and progressive, free-flowing football hopefully awaits for the Ireland team, it’s hard not to think how brilliant Grealish could have been working with the new boss.
Kenny has always favoured a number 10 and in Grealish, he would have had his perfect one. The Villa man would have had five years of international football under his belt with Ireland by now, as opposed to none with England.
He would have played at a European Championships and could have helped Ireland to a World Cup in 2018. All major what-ifs, but ones that arguably could have been avoided.
He’ll play for England one day, there’s no question about that. He is good enough and has been for quite some time.
The scars of Declan Rice’s defection still linger and considering the mess the situation became it’s understandable. Rice is an outstanding talent and would have been exceptional with Ireland.
It’s Grealish through whose loss will creep back up time and time again the more he flourishes.
“I think we identify our best players early,” said Kenny, of Grealish and Rice a year ago.
“And understand what we need to do to give them the best chance of fulfilling their potential – we must have a clear vision of that.”