Home First Team ‘Jack from Solihull’ – A 2020 to remember for Aston Villa’s local...

‘Jack from Solihull’ – A 2020 to remember for Aston Villa’s local lad

2
Grealish tried to lead a Villa fightback against Southampton

Cast your mind back to 2015, Donald Trump officially launched his Republican presidential campaign and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from basketball – 2020 has been an unfamiliar and testing time for us all.

Almost six years ago, it was also the footballing birth of Aston Villa’s new prodigy, with bare calfs flashing, a slicked back undercut and number 40 hanging off his back – his unique style would soon resonate with this iconic club.

The 2015 FA Cup final was perfectly set up on Steven Gerrard’s birthday, but Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph and Co would be the party poopers, with Jack Grealish playing the magician, pulling yellow shirts left to right, taking the game at the grandest of stages by the scruff of the neck. Liverpool would fall to a 2-1 loss to Tim Sherwood’s Villa in a game that will be remembered for many years to come.

110 years to the month that Grealish announced himself on the world stage, his great-great-grandfather Billy Garraty won the FA Cup with Villa by beating Newcastle 2-0 – football heritage is in Jack’s blood, though his connection to a club steeped in history doesn’t simply start and end with family ties.

You won’t find too many football clubs go through the turmoil Aston Villa have been through in five years that began with the club’s worst top-flight campaign in a generation, then almost prematurely ending with administration, to now, after answering those who dared to bet against us, Villa are back in the saddle and ready to disrupt the upper echelons of English football once again.

Boy wonder turned club legend in the offing, the past year has been a struggle for us all but watching a kid living the dream made us all fall back in love with football, watching him every weekend is the escape many of us have craved. He’s the local lad leading Villa’s assault on English football’s elite.

From his tender years, Grealish showcased his abilities and so big things were expected of him. This was further extenuated when the club gave up it’s Premier League ever-present label and the burden of expectation was thrust upon his young shoulders.

A young Jack Grealish

The quest for promotion was very much a personal battle for Jack and he stepped up to the challenge squarely, acting as the chief driving force of the club’s bid for top-flight football under Steve Bruce before Dean Smith.

Season in, season out, Grealish’s impact at Villa Park has been unmatched, arguably becoming the single most important player to any football club over the past two years. Wearing the captain’s armband and performing to a level that exceeds his reputation across the country, the debate if he is fit to wear the Three Lions’ shirt is now indisputable.

Grealish described his international debut for England as ‘a dream come true’ as Villa’s captain finally made his first appearance for the national team in September, though it felt like every passing month was a stepping stone in Jack’s pursuit of greatness.

Incredibly, the year of 2020 was Grealish’s first full calendar in the top flight of English football, as he plied his unique trade in the Premier League for 12 months. Jack became the first Villa player to play at the national stadium on five separate occasions, he received his overdue England call-up, played his 200th game for the club he loves, and is now recognised amongst the many mortals he once idolised as a wide-eyed teen fulfilling a narrative that would make Roy of the Rovers scoff.

2020: The year Jack Grealish put smiles back on the many faces

Grealish had started the 2019-20 season with a monkey on his back, though it simply proved to be tepid attempt to question Grealish’s top-flight minerals. Villa’s captain becomes the first player to lose 20 successive Premier League games but during the height of Villa’s era of mismanagement on and off the field, passing the buck to a then 19-year old was hardly fair. After all, Grealish took the mantle from former Premier League Player of the Season, La Liga champion and four-time Champions League winner, Gareth Bale… and he turned out alright, didn’t he?

While battle scars from an arduous three years stay in the Championship remained raw, a cut to the eyebrow having swung aloft the gleaming play-off trophy wasn’t a bother for Grealish, who on his first season back in the big time drew a top-flight record 167 fouls.

Grealish and Smith

88 days separated Grealish’s play-off final delight and indeed his first win as a Premier League captain, as Smith’s Villa side condemned Everton to defeat in an atmosphere like no other at Villa Park, celebrating a top-flight win at home for the first time in over three years.

Villa would from thereon take wins only when they absolutely had to, against Newcastle, Brighton, Norwich, firstly at Carrow Road and on Boxing Day at Villa Park, before opening the new year at Turf Moor.

It wasn’t a festive period to remember for Villa, not only had they dropped further into the relegation places but heavy losses to Leicester, Watford and Manchester City exposed defensive fragilities that had to be ironed out if survival was to be achieved.

A second Premier League relegation of Grealish’s career was firmly on the cards and indeed an ever-growing prospect as six-pointers were key to survival. So when Troy Deeney scored his customary goal at the Holte End – Villa were plunged into deep trouble on a cold night in January 2020.

Douglas Luiz sparked a revival all before a fifth 90th-minute goal of the season won Villa a crucial three points by virtue of Tyrone Mings’ soleplate. Flicking the ball on from Ezri Konsa’s audacious effort on goal, Villa Park was thrown into delirium – but not for the final time in a week.

Whilst also battling to remain in the Premier League, Villa – galvanised every week by Grealish’s influence – were also keen to make the most of a 5-0 win over league champions, Liverpool in the quarter-final stage of the Carabao Cup. It might well have come in bizarre circumstances as 16-year-olds lined up in the Villa Park tunnel, but you could forgive fans for getting a little giddy after far too many a weekends were ruined through a tough season.

Villa took a valuable draw away from a tricky first leg semi-final against the high-flying Leicester City thanks to a Frederic Guilbert goal. Like London buses, Villa went on to book their place in the 60th League Cup final in the final stages of the second leg at Villa Park thanks to another late goal when Trezeguet came up with the goods only a week after Villa Park’s foundations had steadied from the week before.

London buses, you say? Well, Villa fans would again travel down to the capital to contest a major final, their fifth Wembley outing in as many years – and indeed every one of those outings featured a certain Jack Grealish, who if he wasn’t the proclaimed poster boy of this proud club, would be making the same trip alongside the 40,000 strong Brummie continent.

Manchester City would prove to be a bridge too far for Smith’s side looking to replicate Wigan Athletic’s cup final exploits against the three-time Premier League champions. Bjorn Engels gave City a scare late on, but ultimately, despite Villa’s valiant efforts a 2-1 loss at Wembley would re-inflict the harsh realities of Villa’s misfortunes at Wembley.

Attention would soon turn to top-flight survival, but Grealish’s despondent countenance after missing out on silverware would produce an unwanted League hangover. Leicester avenged their Carabao Cup semi-final defeat to Villa by handing out a 4-0 thrashing and a major blow in Premier League survival as Villa looked doomed with games quickly running out.

Unprecedented times were ahead, and football paled into little significance when the world woke up to the Coronavirus pandemic that soon swept the UK with exponential rates of infection, and whilst a football club’s responsibility to serve the wider community remained more prevalent than ever, Aston Villa took a lead in providing support to those most in need.

Villa captain Grealish made sure he had been doing as much charity work as possible to make amends after being disciplined by the club for ignoring lockdown rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grealish also raised money for the NHS by raffling off a signed shirt from Villa’s 1-0 win at St. Andrew’s in Villa’s final Championship campaign. The shirt raised over £55,000 for the NHS on top of the generous donation Grealish made earlier in the month of June.

Premier League captains including Grealish also launched an initiative to raise in excess of £4 million to help the NHS in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The #PlayersTogether fund, launched in partnership with NHS Charities Together, was based on player contributions and helped those intimately involved in the crisis.

On the pitch, Grealish set out to keep the club afloat having dragged Villa up on 12 months ago under the Wembley arch – despite his eye-catching, natty braids, a dull stalemate against Sheffield United might have not have been the unglamorous start to Project Restart Grealish and Co were looking for… but every point would count in the end.

Back from the brink: Grealish carries Villa over the dotted line

Fellow Villan at heart, Dean Smith was tasked with not only sealing promotion but indeed surviving in his first season as a top-flight manager – it was also Grealish’s first taste of a full Premier League campaign as a fully-fledged member of the first team.

Grealish became a force with the armband

Restoring Villa’s Premier League status, setting a new club-record winning run and leading the club to a League Cup final was all in a whirlwind year and a half for villa boss Smith.

Though after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United six games into the Premier League’s Project Restart, the writing was on the wall for Smith’s Villa side who plunged deeper into relegation trouble.

It was fast becoming a top-flight season to forget for Grealish, but as the relegation picture became clearer, fixtures were running out and Villa’s gaffer knew there was no margin for error as the final four fixtures of the season approached – it was an opportunity to produce a truly great escape.

“I have never got too high or too low on defeats throughout my career,” Dean Smith told Sky Sports before searching for his first win since January as Villa welcomed Crystal Palace in early July – it was the attitude installed into Grealish and Villa’s team.

Villa fans might not have been expecting to take any points from a tricky run of games that included Chelsea, Wolves, United and Liverpool, but whilst Villa had acquitted themselves well at Anfield, not one forward or midfielder at the club had scored a goal for nine games, the worst goal drought in any Villa side in 25 years, though Grealish would choose his time to strike when it mattered most.

Amidst Villa’s most perilous months prior to and after lockdown, Smith remained the eternal optimist, he never backed down nor shirked responsibility even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival.

Seven points separated Villa and Watford who sat above the dotted line come July 12 and only a win against a bang out of form Palace side would do for Villa side so desperate for the three points that could alter a whole season’s fortunes.

A vital win over Arsenal followed a late blow at Goodison Park before Grealish chose the perfect time to notch his first goal in 14 Premier League games at the London Stadium to seal Villa’s top-flight status on a dramatic final day.

Smith’s dedication and application to the job were never in question after his father, Ron Smith passed away during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. In previous interviews, Smith had spoken of the illness’ impact and the fact his dad didn’t know he was Villa manager.

Smith said: “Timing is never good to lose a parent but he is probably in a better place now because he hadn’t been well for a long time. It was one of those things you have to deal with.”

“I lost my dad to coronavirus and I’ve got a ‘Holte Enders In The Sky’ badge on in honour of him and he will be looking down on us that’s for sure.

“My family watched it together and they are immensely proud. It’s an unbelievable achievement, more than being promoted last season.”

His nominated captain, Grealish added that he and the rest of the playing squad wanted to achieve top-flight survival for Dean’s father.

“I always used to ask him every day how his dad was getting on,” Grealish said.

“Then when the news came it was devastating for him and his family. Us as players have tried to be there for him and try to help him.”

As jubilant scenes began after a two-minute wait to see if Watford could squeeze a couple of goals past current Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, Smith was up for taking celebrations deep into the night.

Grealish wanted to achieve survival for Ron Smith

Smith – who retained his record of never been relegated as a manager – said: “We’ll go out and get drunk together!

“I said to Jack he’d come to the party and score. He has been getting better and better. He has come good when he needed to.

“I’ve said many times before we have billionaire owners – if people want to come in and get the best player, it’ll cost an awful lot of money.

“Jack’s an Aston Villa fan, he will be immensely proud that he scored the goal that managed to keep us in the Premier League. I’ll sit down with the sporting director, the CEO and the owners on Monday. Let’s enjoy this. It’s a magnificent achievement.”

Villa’s talisman ended the 2019-20 campaign with 18 goal contributions in all competitions. He managed nine goals and six assists in the Premier League – his name would soon be linked with the same old names, but our lad from Solihull was busy writing a story of his own.

Ambitious owners not short of a bob or two promising to take Aston Villa back to the elite podium of European football is no new phenomenon for Villa fans accustomed to the lofty aspirations of new investors.

The ownership of Aston Villa Football Club has been passed across four continents in the past 15 years with European tours, top-flight relegations and promotions the price of swapping the keys to Villa Park around the billionaires club all too often.

Regimes past and present have all shared the common goal of restoring Villa’s status as an elite European club, but so often in the past, these goals have failed to wash for Villans tired of false promises.

Perhaps matching Barcelona’s global appeal within five years of Dr Tony Xia walking into Villa Park were unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are becoming quite the power couple.

The two billionaires have ploughed over £140m worth of transfer expenditure after taking control of the club just over two years ago. Their first statement of intent was to reject Daniel Levy’s approach for prized asset Jack Grealish whose move to Tottenham was blocked when Sawiris and Edens swooped in to save Villa from financial ruin in 2018.

Winning promotion back to the Premier League through the playoffs a year earlier than expected was the first step achieved for NSWE who had big plans for Villa upon arrival back in the big time. Dean Smith hadn’t been in the job longer than eight months but Villa’s daring owners would put their money where their mouth is and back their head coach to the hill.

The new owners did not want to lose Grealish

As statements singings go, keeping hold of Grealish in successive summer windows speaks volumes of the intentions Villa have in climbing the English football ladder and indeed competing in Europe again.

Sawiris’ lengthy Skype call with Grealish probably didn’t convince Jack to stay at his boyhood club, instead he informed the club’s ambitious but importantly realistic plans – so much so, Super Jack pledged his long-term future to sign a new five-year deal until 2025.

‘It’s something every child in England dreams of since they’re little kids’ – Grealish’s overdue England audition

Grealish, for some time, has been deserved in fulfilling his dream to become an England international – at least the opportunity to prove himself at the highest level after plenty of overlooks from Gareth Southgate.

“When I was 15, I went to England trials and I collapsed,” Grealish remembered. “I was just nervous. I don’t usually get nervous but I collapsed.”

While Villa fans were running out of superlatives for Grealish, Southgate had been running out of excuses not to pick him. “C’est la vie,” the England boss professed.

In Southgate’s September internationals squad selection, the national team boss had to contend with injuries to key midfielders Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dele Alli, forcing the selection of an inexperienced group. Grealish’s first cap for England was in sight.

“I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team,” Southgate admitted back in 2018.

“I never pick on reputation – form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”

Grealish for England

Though after performing at the peak of his powers through the 18 months leading up to the start of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Grealish’s initial absence left fans scratching their heads across the country, not just the ‘biased’ few in Birmingham.

Grealish was no doubt just as surprised as every Villa fan in Erdington, Perry Barr and Sutton Coldfield when he didn’t receive that long-awaited phone call. Former Arsenal and England forward, Ian Wright said: ’Delighted for every single player that gets the call but can’t help feel like Jack should be at the very least in this squad,’ via his Twitter account.

Villa’s captain has come on leaps and bounds over the past three years, and along the way, many have tipped him for the top after witnessing his talent first hand.

Joe Cole spent pent two years at Villa Park towards the end of his career and realised Grealish’s potential immediately.

“I think he’s the type that can pull on any shirt and it wouldn’t be too heavy for him,” said Cole.

“I include the England shirt with that. His England career has been a long time coming for various reasons but no shirt would be too heavy for Jack. He’d be able to wear it.”

Cole was another stylish midfielder prone to the curse of not knowing how to use his flair and guile in an England shirt. The uniquely talented tens so often produced on the continent have rarely blossomed since the likes of Gazza, though as we await to see what the shirt holds for Grealish, his England career was about to take off.

Following the withdrawals of Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks from Gareth Southgate’s squad, Grealish was drafted in to cover an extensive injury list amongst Southgate’s squad.

Grealish replaced fellow debutant Kalvin Phillips against Denmark on September 8, with 15 minutes of the game remaining as the Three Lions were looking for a winning goal. The game ended in a 0-0 draw but Grealish was over the moon to play his first international game.

“I was actually a bit emotional,” he told Sky Sports following the match.

“It’s something that you dream of, every child in England dreams of since they’re little kids, playing for England senior team. I was so privileged coming on, it was a shame we couldn’t get the win in the end, but I just want to thank Gareth himself for giving me the opportunity here, and I hope it’s the first of many.

“I just got told to warm up about 10-15 minutes before, so I just stayed out there until I got the call and then when I did it was obviously a brilliant moment for myself and my family. I feel like it’s gone well for myself, I’ve enjoyed every single minute,” he added.

“You know most of the boys anyway playing week in week out. And everyone’s made me feel welcome here, all the staff have been brilliant with myself, the manager and especially the players so I’ve enjoyed absolutely every minute of it.”

New season, new levels for Villa’s talisman

On the same day Grealish put pen to paper on a new long-term deal with Villa, he lined up at the Pirelli Stadium against Burton Albion as Villa navigated their route back to Wembley in the Carabao Cup.

Only several years ago had Grealish scored against Burton in the Championship – fast forward a couple of seasons and the proof is in the pudding. Despite the many unjust question marks over his head as he took Villa back up to the top flight, against the Brewers, Jack was levels above any other player on the pitch.

With a swagger we’ve all come accustomed to drooling over, Grealish netted his first of the season when he masterfully controlled a volley into the back of the net – standard stuff from Villa’s No.10.

League proceedings would kick off later than usual, as COVID-19 continued to disrupt the Premier League calendar. After Villa kicked off the Premier League’s Project Restart against Chris Wilder’s Blades, Villa would too open their 2020-21 campaign against Sheffield United.

A solid 1-0 victory over a blunted Blades side would soon be followed up with a 3-0 thrashing of newly-promoted Fulham, where Grealish netted his first goal of the season – but what followed next will go down as a Premier League archive for as long as English football will remember.

Jack Grealish

“Grealish celebrates in front of an empty Holte End but there’ll be Villa fans leaping up and down all across the land and around the world.”

Inflicting the heaviest of defeats any side had managed on Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns on Merseyside – Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool. In fact, not for 67 years has the English top-flight champions fallen to a seven-goal loss, as orchestrated by Jack Grealish and a team of Villa players eager to run give an extra mile for the shirt.

Kolo Toure cutting an isolated figure in the middle of Joleon Lescott and Ally Cissokho’s six-yard box isn’t a memory that’s been easy to forget for Villa fans – Toure’s and Liverpool’s sixth goal on that fateful day in February 2016 was the tipping point for Villa’s demise.

Now nobody expected the sheer turmoil that would follow with ownership problems, financial crisis, the pain and delight of play-off finals, but neither what would proceed in the Premier League.

In the past 50 years, only David Platt had registered 25 goal contributions as a Villa captain in fewer appearances with the armband than Grealish. The captain also became the second Villa player to assist three goals in a single Premier League game, since James Milner against Burnley in February 2010, in Villa’s thrashing of Liverpool.

The following week might not have been as frantic, but almost just as sweet when Ross Barkley continued his fine Villa form to wrap up all the points at the King Power Stadium at the death. Grealish turned chief negotiator to seal Barkley’s loan move to Villa Park in the summer and the two formed quite the partnership as Villa fell short of only Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and PSG to average more goals per game in Europe’s top five leagues, as early-season form peaked against Leicester City.

Barkley would pick up a hamstring problem within the opening minutes of a home clash with Brighton and so his injury would disrupt Villa’s encouraging flow. Leeds and Southampton also took maximum points away from Villa Park as Grealish’s side failed to make use of any sort of home advantage when 2020 gradually drew to an end.

Villa only took nine points from away fixtures the last term before Project Restart kicked off in June, but after winning five of the first six games on the road this term, Villa are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual defensive displays.

Barkley and Grealish are friends off the pitch

In Villa’s fourth win at the Emirates in 14 years, Grealish ran the length of the pitch with the ball seemingly hooked to his toe on a string, before shrugging off Hector Bellerin in his stride and supplying Ollie Watkins to score Villa’s third of the night.

There was simply no way that Southagte could pass up on the chance to formally include Grealish in his 29-man squad for November’s games against Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland. Grealish was handed three starts in a row as England were offered a closer look at a player capable of becoming a shining light in the pursuit of EURO 2020 success.

Away day derby delight against Wolves and then West Bromwich Albion came in-between a 0-0 draw to Burnley. Grealish created eight chances for his teammates at The Hawthorns – a number of chances no player has created more of in a single Premier League away game across the past five seasons.

Low socks, high output: Grealish tops the 2020 charts

Grealish’s performances in 2020 have tempted Villa fans to dare in believing that this season could reach unexpected heights.

Asked whether he was now thinking about European football, Villa boss Smith quipped: “With the pandemic, I am not thinking about Europe at all, as we can’t travel at the moment!

“But no, seriously, we are not thinking of it. We are just thinking of the next game.

“There is a great focus from our team at the moment and there is a willingness to keep progressing as a club and as individual players. As long as I have got that whatever will be, will be. We will just keep working hard.”

As 2020 draws to a close, Grealish has won more fouls than any other player in the league. Grealish drew 56 fouls in just 12 games, with two leading to penalty kicks. While Villa have experienced varied success from the penalty spot, goals from open play haven’t been in short measure.

Grealish has made 122 touches in the attacking penalty area – a Premier League high that demonstrates his attacking influence in Smith’s side. Grealish’s expected assists of 4.5 is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne, while Villa’s captain has made the most shot-creating actions in the league. 61 of his 84 shot-creating actions have actually led to an effort on goal – a high proportion when measured against his top-flight counterparts.

His 43 key passes is also a Premier League high and a big improvement from the numbers Grealish was recording towards the end of 2019. Having dribbled past over 40 different Premier League players, Grealish has moved with the ball at his feet over 3,600 yards. Last season, Grealish set a new Premier League record of total progressive distance travelled with the ball after covering 9,108 yards in 38 games.

The coming years will be Jack Grealish’s to realise his ambitions with his club he grew up supporting – a cornerstone of English football making its way back to the heights from which it once fell with a local lad leading a new, exciting era.

2 COMMENTS

  1. An excellent write up. The most refreshing article i have read about the Villa in a long while. Keep up the good journalism.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here