It was a familiar sight for fans of a claret and blue persuasion. Their hero with his socks down by his ankles, hair flicked back, dribbling past players with the ease of a man out for an evening stroll.
Jack Grealish has left Aston Villa fans drooling with his talents over the past five years, but this last week he announced himself on the international stage.
After missing out on a starting place for both of England’s Euro Nation’s games during October, Grealish was eager to not only feature more this time round but do so impressively.
He has not had a bad week with the national side. He started all three games, won all three and returned two man of the match awards.
He is currently rated only below teammate Harry Kane as the most inform player in the Premier League via WhoScored, was awarded just his second start for the national team against Ireland – who Grealish represented at youth level. It’s safe to say he repaid Southgate’s faith in him.
In an energetic performance he relentlessly dribbled, passed and fired off shots before assisting Jadon Sancho for England’s second. He was withdrawn after an impactful 60 minutes.
It was back to the Euro Nations for the Three Lions where they faced the number one ranked team in the world, a tough ask to say the least but on a night where England were average at best, Villa’s captain dazzled.
Grealish, who was fouled seven times against Belgium – the most by any England player in a game since Harry Kane versus Colombia in the 2018 World Cup, was simply too hot to handle and in the words of pundit Jamie Redknapp, “ran the show” for Southgate’s side.
The winger’s second half flick over the head of Dortmund fullback Thomas Munier – which sent Twitter into melt down – epitomised perfectly his performance; brave, striking fear into the opposition and above all simply enjoying living out his childhood dream.
The creative edge and swagger on show from the 25-year-old was refreshing to see in an England side and while comparisons made between him and Paul Gascoigne are both unrealistic and unhelpful, the Villa man certainly shares the Three Lions’ legends ability to truly offer something different and exciting.
“I absolutely loved it,” Grealish said in his usual honest self after the game, “I grew up my whole life wanting to play for England and everyone that knows me know that I just love playing football.”
To no surprise of Notts County fans, Grealish, who played a crucial part in the Magpies’ great escape of 2014 which saw Shaun Derry’s side narrowly avoid relegation after a 1-1 draw away at Oldham, said, “the pressure of wanting to do well” is what he loves. Grealish scored five goals and grabbed seven assists in his season with Notts.
Grealish first captured the imagination of Villa fans with a dazzling display in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool back in 2015. His journey to the top of the English game has been far from a smooth one. He was infamously pictured laying drunk on a pavement while on holiday in 2015, and most recently he was caught breaking lockdown and crashing his Range Rover.
Much to the annoyance of the Villa faithful Gareth Southgate, a former Villa player himself, has been reluctant to praise the lad from Solihull. Preferring to talk about Chelsea’s Mason Mount leading to online uproar and as is usual with the internet these days – memes. This time though the England manager was full of praise for Grealish.
“I thought Jack Grealish had an absolutely outstanding game. I saw what I knew I would see from Jack, someone with the bravery to play. He took the ball in tight areas, his technique was good, he took players out of the game.”
He added: “We knew he would buy a lot of free-kicks. I thought he was outstanding; he should be absolutely delighted with the way he played. Has he climbed the pecking order? 100 per cent.”
Backed by the tsunami of Aston Villa fans and a fair share of Notts County supporters who took to social media on Sunday night to yell ‘We told you so!’, Grealish once again nailed down his starting place for the three lions’ final game of the year – Iceland.
Once again, the Villa captain was everywhere, central to everything England created, Grealish did what he does best, carrying the ball, drawing players out of position to create chances for others.
The winger was voted man of the match as Southgate’s side saw off Iceland to end what had been an international break of mixed emotions for the national team, but one of enormous pride and satisfaction for Grealish who had finally not only achieved his first competitive start for England but nailed down a spot for some time to come.
With the international break over, Grealish returns to the Premier League for his boyhood club Aston Villa where he’ll look to build on the Villains’ exceptional start the season which sees them sitting sixth place with a game in hand and just three points away from top of the table Leicester City.
Euro 2020 will soon be on us before we know it and Southgate certainly has his plans cut out if he wants to find the best possible system to field Sterling, Rashford, Kane and Grealish in the same team.
One thing however is for sure, football fans around the country who, despite his lightening start to Villa’s campaign, often asked what exactly the hype was with Jack Grealish, certainly have their answer now. And if they don’t, I’m not quite sure when they will.
By Jack O’Connor