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 Jack Grealish, his England career is about to take off.
Season after season, Grealish’s impact at Aston Villa 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, his ability to wear the Three Lions is now indisputable.
He is fully capable of fulfilling his dream of becoming an England star on the international stage and at the very least deserves the opportunity to prove himself to whoever is left doubting his ability. After all, it’s something he’s worked for throughout his career.
“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.”
This summer could be Grealish’s most memorable yet. Having failed and succeeded with Villa under the Wembley arch in Championship play-off finals, Villa’s skipper has plenty of memories to take into a national stadium due to host England’s EURO 2020 finals in July.
This is of course dependent on Villa’s talisman getting the opportunity to shine in England’s pursuit of European glory this summer.
While Villa fans, and more generally, football fans across the country were running out of superlatives for Grealish at the start of the season, Gareth Southgate was running out of excuses not to pick him in his squads. “C’est la vie,” the England boss uttered on one occasion.
After making a scintillating start to the Premier League season, Grealish was originally left out of England’s September internationals squad, despite Southgate having to contend with injuries to midfielders Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dele Alli.
Grealish’s first cap for England was hardly in sight, but after more injuries forced Southgate’s reluctant hand, ‘Super Jack’ was afforded little more than 15 minutes to show what he could do on his England debut against Denmark in the Nations League.
After orchestrating Villa’s fine start to the league season with assists and goals in a 3-0 away win against Fulham and the 7-2 hammering over Liverpool, Grealish was rewarded with another chance to prove his worth with the Three Lions on his chest.
Grealish managed to record an assist on his full England debut and indeed shone against Wales in what was dubbed as a wholly unnecessary international break due to soaring COVID-19 infection rates back in October.
England’s opening goal against the Welsh was a textbook thumping header from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but the Toffees forward owed it all to Grealish. On his first England start, the mercurial playmaker lived up to his billing… as he so often has.
“For me, this is what I have been waiting for,” Grealish said after making his third start for England, against Belgium in November.
“These are the games that I dreamed of playing in. This is what I love, the pressure of needing to play well.”
Grealish has the personality to thrive on the biggest stage, inside the biggest of arenas and when it matters most, he almost always comes up with the goods. As he was told from a young age, pressure is a privilege.
England captain Harry Kane provided an additional stamp of approval on Grealish’s first England displays.
“Fantastic player, really like him, really like training with him,” Kane told Sky Sports.
“You can see his qualities on the ball, once he gets on it he’s not afraid one-v-one, always looking for that pass forward, which is obviously great for a striker.
“So really positive signs, he’s obviously been on great form for his club as well, so he’s just got to keep his head down, keep working hard as he has done and I’m sure he will get plenty of opportunities in an England shirt.”
Jack Grealish included in England’s 33-man EURO 2020 provisional squad
Grealish was included in Southgate’s 33-man provisional European Championship squad after the England manager bought himself time by deciding to name a large provisional squad, before reducing it to 26.
It means a host of players still face an anxious wait before Southgate makes his final call, and Grealish is one.
Grealish recently returned from a three-month spell out with injury and the Three Lions boss is wary of overusing him this summer. After provisionally selecting Grealish in his squad, Southgate admitted that he must be careful in how he uses Villa’s skipper.
“I don’t see him as an injury doubt,” Southgate said. “I see a realistic view in terms of where can we get to from where he is in the space of two weeks, in terms of 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes?
“We risk breaking him. We can’t overload him, so we’ve got to manage that really correctly for his welfare, as well as for performance.”
He added: “Can these guys go for six 90 minutes? Very unlikely I would say. [Grealish] is not able to train on consecutive days for example, and he hasn’t had a high training load going into those matches. There are elements of risk.”
When Grealish received his final England snub at the start of the 2020-21 Premier League season, Gabby Agbonlahor branded Grealish’s omission as ‘ridiculous’.
“There is something Gareth Southgate needs to tell everyone that we don’t know,” Gabby told talkSPORT.
“There must be a bigger reason because last season he said ‘no’ because he’s in the Championship. So he’s come back to the Premier League, he’s had one of the best seasons of his career, everyone has been raving about him. He’s got the goals and assists to prove it, to back it up.
“So it’s ridiculous if you think about it. I’m lost for words. It’s a great squad, there are great players in the squad, but what Jack offers you, he should be in every squad.”
Grealish’s performances in Villa’s first season back in the top-flight were exceptional. He contributed to 34% of Villa’s goals in the form of both goals scored and assists. His ability to galvanise a weak Villa team also spoke volumes of his ability. More often than not he was the best player on the pitch having collected nine Premier League Man of The Match awards to prove it.
More technically speaking, only Kevin De Bruyne had completed more live-ball passes that led to a shooting opportunity than Grealish last season, who working within a Villa side hamstrung by injuries and heavy rotation was over-reliant on his contributions.
Grealish carried the ball over a total distance of 15,461 yards, a further distance than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues last term as well. Importantly, Grealish created 92 goal-scoring chances, a tally that only Manchester City’s De Bruyne could better in the Premier League. Grealish’s creativity and attacking output is not up for question, and frankly, it’s hard to quantify what is.
‘Super Jack’ will continue to go from strength to strength
With a full campaign under his belt, Grealish went from strength to strength this season – despite his injury woes. Even if he missed almost a third of the Premier League season, Grealish still drew more fouls, carried the ball into the penalty box more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues and also registered more goal-creating actions per 90 minutes than any other player in the Premier League.
His talent in an England side which is already stacked with ability would still shine. Granted, Grealish’s injury problems towards the back end of the league season are worrying, but after playing his part in Villa’s impressive end to the season, Southgate must consider what an impact Grealish would have at least by coming off the bench to invigorate a team if required.
Southgate has previously been keen to laud Grealish’s versatility, which is a key asset to any nation approaching a major tournament and it goes without saying that his inclusion in the final squad would therefore be justified. Southgate clearly sees Grealish as a winger, and competition in that department is fierce.
Grealish himself admitted he’d rather occupy a central role as opposed to a wider position for England.
He told the Express and Star: “It is where I would want to play for Villa, but it just so happens at the moment I am playing well in the position I am in and it is better for the team. If I was fortunate enough to get a call-up, the position I would want to play is in midfield.”
Grealish came through Villa’s youth system as a progressive number 10 and while his style is unique, his preferred position on the pitch is naturally due to his incredible skill set. Not until the second half of last season had he played consecutive games in an advanced, wider role for Villa.
Southgate has worked with Grealish before and knowing his strengths, as well as the systems he can fit into, would be of great benefit for the summer. Providing him with the chance to play for England needn’t have become such a palaver.
Grealish was looking forward to starring at the 2017 U21 European Championships as soon as Southgate was appointed senior boss back in 2016. He had hoped his former U21 boss would then open a door to the senior team.
“Our team was so together, and that’s partly because of Gareth,” Grealish told The Times.
“He gives all the boys confidence. You can see the England first team doing well under him. I hope he does get the England job because he’ll be good for the country.
“I’m trying to keep my place with the 21s, hopefully, go to the European Championships next summer and then try to get into the first team. I feel in the future I can go and play for England. That’s definitely my target. That’s my dream.”
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 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.”
With glowing endorsements from the England captain, his teammates, former pros and many others, it seems Grealish still has one man left to win over, yet it’s proving the hardest of them all. Villa’s talisman can be the catalyst for a nation’s celebration this summer, if only he is given the opportunity.