Few potential Ireland players have caused as much of a stir in the past five years or so as young playmaker Jack Grealish.
The Aston Villa midfielder was, it had been hoped at one time, destined to take his place with the Boys in Green as they left the Giovanni Trapattoni era behind and began Martin O’Neill’s reign with a newfound wave of optimism. Grealish had performed with Ireland at U17, U18 and U21 level and it seemed as though the ascension to the senior ranks was inevitable.
And then England came calling.
The ins and outs of that story will not be dredged up here again, as by now we’re all aware of what happened. Grealish ultimately chose the country of his birth, and there is nothing to be said for that other than the fact that, despite his previous caps for the Ireland youth sides, he was fully within his rights to do so.
That being said, for a while after it looked as though Ireland would not feel like they had missed out on anything. Not to suggest that Grealish was stagnating as such, but his career development had definitely slowed down. Rumours of off-field indiscretions had become more frequent, and at one point in late 2016 it was alleged that then-Villa manager Roberto Di Matteo fined the then 21-year-old as the Italian was close to reaching the end of his tether.
This season, however, he is a player transformed – or at least he has been in the last couple of months. There has been a noticeable change in level of consistency, and Aston Villa are benefiting as a result. There is a sense, now, that Grealish is finally in a position to realise his potential and cement his status as a key player in the side’s promotion charge.
His last six matches in the Championship have produced one goal and three assists, and his extended run in the first team has coincided with Villa’s best run of form so far this season.
That he has performed so well is doubly impressive given the freak injury that he picked up in pre-season. A clash with Watford’s Tom Cleverley in a friendly left with him with a cut to his kidney, and as a result missed the first three months of the season.
That time away seems to have given him a sense of perspective, that the talent he possesses should at no point be taken for granted and could very easily be taken away by a cruel twist of fate.
Villa manager Steve Bruce – the fifth boss Grealish has worked under since he made his senior debut almost four years ago – had hoped to utilise the 22-year-old’s creative talents for his side’s push for promotion to the Premier League. While that plan was subsequently halted by injury, player and manager seem now to be making up for lost time.
His composure and assurance on the ball, his ability to get out of tight spaces, and his relentless stamina all mark him out as a potential star in the making – and although this summer’s World Cup is too soon for him to make an impact in the international side, Euro 2020 is where he could make his mark and, in his mind at least, fully vindicate his decision to choose England over Ireland.
In a midfield that also features Irish internationals Conor Hourihane and Glenn Whelan, and with Scott Hogan leading the line up front, Irish fans will definitely have a sense of ‘what if’ when it comes to Grealish as they see the group working together to spearhead Villa’s push back into the top tier.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we look back at last week’s season-opening Dublin derby and debate Graham Cummins’ controversial red card as we review and preview all of the latest League of Ireland action.