I have been meaning to write this article about Jack since saturday but have only just managed to put my phone down and stop watching the best goal I have ever seen at Villa Park. 574 different angles later and I am still filled with a sense of awe and bewilderment as the ball gracefully rockets into the exact square of the net that as a kid we all dreamed of hitting. However, whilst the perfection of that volley encapsulates Jacks performance on Saturday, the purpose of this article is to stress how much more he does for the team, and the fans. As somebody born in 1998, I don’t have the likes of Paul McGrath and Merson to pick my favourite ever Villa player from. The likes of Gabby, Melberg, Carew and Benteke have always been my top candidates but in Jack I finally have a hero to be proud of; here is why…
Since Jack made his debut in 2014, it feels like we, as Villa fans, have lived out our boyhood dreams through our homegrown hero: we passed out alongside him in Tenerife, we celebrated every classy touch as he shone against Liverpool in an FA cup final and, as a fanbase, we made a theoretical road block to keep Levy away from our star in the summer. To put it simply, Jack has a connection with us fans that is priceless and quite frankly, awfully rare in modern football. The only thing I can compare it to is Gerrard at Liverpool; a player who truly understands what it means to wear the shirt. Let’s hope he has his own Istanbul moment…
However, the point of this section of the article is to express the paradox that is Grealish’ growth. As a player, he has matured so much, changing from a left winger, to an attacking midfielder and now to a fantastic central midfielder. To aid this transition it is clear that he has put on a lot of muscle and matured in many ways. To do what he did against Derby on his first game back from a 3 month injury is a testament to his commitment and professionalism. It simply should not happen. The difference between picking up a second yellow for a dive against West Brom in 2016 after only 16 minutes on the pitch and the defensive ability we see in Jack now is startling. He remains the most fouled player in the Championship, despite being injured for 3 months, and yet he does not kick out or retaliate.
However, despite all of these brilliant developments that Jack has made through hard work and dedication, it is impossible not to see the same 18 year old that burst onto the scene in 2014. His hair remains slicked back, his shin pads have shrunk if anything and he still struts around the pitch with an astonishing degree of confidence and belief in his own ability.
There’s only one Grealish
Opposing fans hate him, can you blame them? He is an enigma, a player so unique that it is hard to compare him to previous players. Everyone has seen lightening fast wingers burst onto the scene; your Walcott’s, Lennon’s and more recently, Sancho. However, Jack is not blessed with this same level of pace, nor does he need it. Whilst other players rely on physical ability, Jack draws on an immense degree of footballing intellegence and his exceptional technical ability to stand out. For me, this is so much more rare and impressive. I remeber during the season we got relegated, Jack was untouchable against Chelsea. He did not seem to have the pace or strength to beat their full back, but he would ghost past him anyway, winning countless free kicks in the process. This is a trait he has maintained and is the reason he is the most fouled player in the league.
If you want to see a player as composed on the ball as Grealish is then you will have to watch Champions League football. His ball retention against Derby was on the edge of being an insult to thier players. Time after time he would pick the ball up under pressure near his own box and jog around with the ball, dropping the occasional shoulder for kicks and giggles, before playing the perfect pass to a teammate in space. Usually, from the stands you can see the passes before the players do and you wonder why they make some of their choices; to my shame, Jack makes passes that I can’t see from my virtually birds-eye persepctive. The first goal against Derby was just another one of these occasions, Jack strutted about, unphased by the Derby midfielder desperately trying to pressure him, and (whilst turning) curled an inch perfect ball that put Tammy and Hourihane through on goal. It was laughable how easily Jack opened up Derby in just another example of his talent.
Most players are easy to compare to someone else; ‘the next Ronaldo’ is a phrase you hear banded about whenever an insanely poweful yet gifted goalscorer bursts onto the scene. With Grealish, it is inherently difficult to compare him to any other play that I have watched. Bruce compared him to Gascoigne and Terry has said that ‘he can go right to the top’ – and he would know. Maybe this is why he infuriates opposing fans so much as they have no precedent to base his control upon the game off of. All they know is that their player struggle to tackle him without giving a foul away and that, more often than not, they’ll go home with no points if he is playing.
Firstly, let me state that judging a midfielder purely by the amount of goals and assists that they get is incredibly stupid and anyone doing so should put their Xbox controller down and watch an actual football match. Yes, goals and assists are great, but our first goal against Derby owed more credit to Jack than anyone else on that pitch and yet Tammy got the assist and Hourihane the goal. This shows the ineptitude of a valuation judged on individual stats – that said, if you are reading this Mr Levy then Jack does not score or assist enough and is not worth getting your wallet out for…
After the win at the weekend, I thought it would be interesting to see how many games we have won with Grealish since Smith came in as opposed to without him. My stats are sourced from www.whoscored.com :
Smith joined on the 10th October, Grealish has played 10 games and we have won 6 of these; drawing twice and losing twice in the process. It is important to note that the defeats were his second and third games respectively and were away to Norwich and QPR. Despite losing 0-1, Jack won man of the match in the latter game. It is fair to say that these results came before Smith had any time to properly coach his approach and they are thus negligible to an extent.
One of our two draws was away to West Brom and we played fantastically before cheated out of the win by an offside handball from Jay Rodriguez. The other draw was the infamous 5-5 at home to Nottingham Forest; we had 26 shots to their 8 and the fact we drawed that game was a mix of bad goalkeeping and a lack of clinical finishing. It is fair to say we played brilliantly in both of these games when in possession and should have won both.
That leaves us with the 6 wins against: Bolton, Derby (x2), Small Heath, Middlesborough and Swansea. Fascinatingly, we kept clean sheets in all of these games bar birmingham and scored an incredible tally of 17 goals in 6 matches. If you include our draws then we scored 24 goals in 8 games which, to the enjoyment of any OCD mathematicians out there, is exactly 3 goals per game. It is clear that in these games with Grealish, we have performed at a level that would see us ease towards promotion if maintained for a whole season. I will go as far as saying that if we play like we did against Derby in every game from now until May, there is no reason why we can’t get into the playoffs and even win it. It is a huge ask but with Grealish in the side, it is one that I believe to be possible.
Now, here comes the interesting part, our record without Grealish during the 14 game-long injury that he sustained at West Brom. We won just 2 games without Jack, drawing 7 times and losing a costly 5 matches. It does not take a genius to see that there is a massive gulf between our results with Jack and those without him. But results alone do not tell the whole pitcure, as performances change by an even larger amount. Two of these losses were the 3-0 defeats to Swansea and Wigan and even the wins were by one goal margins against Swansea and Wigan. Without Jack, over 14 games our goal difference amounted to -8, this is in stark contrast to the +13 that we have achieved with him under Smith.
The ‘infectious’ Jack
It is worth noting that these changes are not only due to the ability that Jack possesses. There seems to be something deeper going on here, from simply watching the games, everyone seems to play better when he is on the pitch; Smith himself described Jack as ‘infectious’ and this is plain for all to see. Hourihane has received more than his fair share of critics recently but was fantastic next to Jack at Derby and has played so much better when next to Grealish. I have not exactly held back in my criticism of Whelan when we have lost and therefore it would be wrong to hold back in my praise for him when he does well. Glenn was sensational against Derby, he kept the ball brilliantly and was a vital cog in a team that kept possession in such a manner that us fans were chanting “we want our ball back” on the rare occasions that Derby managed to get hold of it.
I believe that it is the composure and intelligence of Jack that allows everyone else to flourish. When he is not in the team, the defenders routinely seem to have no options but to pump the ball long when they are in possession. Jack floats about and will always receive the ball under pressure and offload it to a teammate; this is indescribably important to the possession football that we have enjoyed at time under Smith. Kortney Hause morphed into Andrea Pirlo at the weekend and played some passes that many would not have deemed him capable of after his first few games at the club. Jack’s ability to hold into the ball frees up masses of space for his teammates and allows them to then play far better; this is why our performances and results are so much better with him.
The captains armband belongs to Jack now. I loved the gesture as Whelan handed it back to him upon full time on Saturday and is clear how much captaining HIS club meant to him. Jack rose to the occasion and gave us a captain to be proud of. This is another crucial point that I wish to make; Jack’s ‘infectious’ nature also makes its way into the stands.
It goes without saying that supporting Villa over the last decade has been depressing at the best of times and this has certainly had an effect on us fans. We are very quick to fear the worst and expect the other team to score and ,the atmosphere at Villa Park is now regularly toxic as a result of the pent up frustration that our decline has caused. Whilst this is understandable, it can only serve to lessen the chances of our club achieving success. This toxic atmosphere rose to a peak when Hourihane was disgracefully booed off of the pitch against West Brom; with Richards and Lescott I can justify that sort of crowd behaviour, but not with a lad that clearly puts in full effort every game. Yes, he had been poor, but how is that going to help anything?
With Jack on the pitch, the crowd is far more positive – arguably this could be because we play far better and win far more; but I believe it goes deeper than this. Grealish’ passion is unmissable and watching him play is an incredibly enjoyable experience. Watching a footballer with as much quality as Jack justifies the price of a match ticket, and this takes some pressure off of the other players. Jack is an international level player who is playing in the Championship and it watching him whilst we are in this league feels like a privilege.
So, what next?
It is really difficult to predict what the future has to offer with regards to Jack. We would obviously love him to stay at the club and become even more of a hero and in the process, take us back to the top flight. However, the likelihood of us gaining promotion this season is now relatively small and this is a huge problem as Jack will inevitably have to think about his own career at some point. If we were in the Premier League them I would see him leaving as an inexcusable betrayal, but we are not and that is not a result of his lack of trying. Jack should be flaunting his exceptional talent in the highest levels and it will be difficult for him to risk another years delay to a career that is his life.
That said, Smith has recently spoken in a manner that suggests he expects Grealish to stay. IF this happenes, than I will be over the moon (if you would not have guessed from the rest of the article). I recently watched the Gerrard documentary and one of the key moments was his decision to reject Chelsea because he would never have that special connection with the fans in the way he did at Liverpool. I hope this example is at the forefront of our homegrown hero’s mind. Even this summer on social media, many Spurs fans were actively tweeting to try and stop their club from buying him. They simply do not deserve Grealish.
We understand Jack and adore him, hopefully he stays and becomes the club legend that he is destined to be.
Up the Villa and if you are reading this Jack, please stay!
By Callum Richardson