Jack Grealish is in contention for a starting place against Ukraine
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It is what every England fan would hope about Jack Grealish: if he was not on the pitch for his country he would be “at Boxpark” right in among them, enjoying the football, watching on the big screens, singing the songs and celebrating at the entertainment venue.
“I’ve seen a few videos of that. It looked unreal,” Grealish says. “That’s what I’d be doing, because I‘m just a normal kid.”
In fact, the Aston Villa captain has become the embodiment of the player the fans want to be; their poster boy (and he smiles at that reference); their “normal kid”; their Jack the lad; their “Super Jack Grealish” as they chanted his name before he came on against Germany to tip the last-16 tie in England’s favour by involving himself in both goals.
“I try and get the fans off their seats,” Grealish adds, and he has certainly lived up to that during this European Championship. “I try and attack as much as possible and I think that’s what fans want to see. I know what I am good at.” And the adulation? The chanting? “I don’t know! You tell me!” Grealish says. “I like that sort of stuff and I just go out and try to repay people with my performances. That’s what I do at Villa. Look, at Villa, fans giving me so much love, I go out there and try and repay them. When I come here it is different. I get booed every single week by these fans [for my club]!
“When I watched in 2018 in Russia, it was something that brought the nation together …. it makes me so happy and proud when I hear the crowd singing my name. It could be too much pressure for some people, but I just want to repay that by scoring or getting an assist, helping the team win. It spurs me on.”
That connection is precious to Grealish, although having made it with England he is adamant that it has not changed or overwhelmed him and he references his father, Kevin, who is a plasterer. “He has done it his whole life and so have I [as a footballer],” Grealish says. “Just because it’s a bigger game or whatever, I don’t really change anything I do. I do it every single day. I train every single day. Just because more people are watching, I don’t really let that get to me. I just do it as though it’s an under-18 match or Villa game … I just try and be my own person.”
Despite the euphoria and the growing sense of expectation around England, Grealish is careful not to overlook how tough Saturday’s quarter-final against Ukraine in Rome will be and insists the squad is fully focused. “You look at the France game the other day and no one expected them to be beaten by Switzerland, and Switzerland played a great game,” he says. “Obviously, they ended up winning on penalties. And the person that missed a penalty [Kylian Mbappe] was the last you’d probably expect. We know that anything can happen in football and especially in knockout football.”
Grealish, at 25, is one of the older members of this youthful squad. Is there a sense of making up for lost time? “Yes, of course, but 100 per cent that’s down to me,” he said, recalling a conversation he had with the then manager Roy Hodgson, when he opted for England over the Republic of Ireland six years ago.
“I thought it was going to be the start of my international career, and it wasn’t. I had some stuff off the pitch and then I got relegated [with Villa], so, it’s nobody else’s fault, it’s my own. It was difficult to deal with, but I feel like I have matured so much and it has helped me on and off the pitch.”
Part of that maturity is accepting that – unlike for Villa – he is not an automatic starter for England, given the extraordinary attacking options. “It’s difficult. I have to be realistic about myself and the talent that we have here, especially in my position. You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] who, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world. Myself, Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Raheem [Sterling], Phil Foden and Bukayo [Saka]. That’s scary how good us six are. That’s not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.”
Jack Grealish is a fan of Bukayo Saka
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Nevertheless, there has even been debate about whether Gareth Southgate fully trusts Grealish. But he is having none of that. “Nah, he’s been perfect with me,” Grealish says. “I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth, but we have a great relationship, as he does with all the players. He’s a brilliant man-manager … He can’t play all six of us. He can’t play everyone. That’s one thing that he’s done really well. He’s made people think that they are still involved.”
It is also why Grealish put himself through the pain barrier at the end of the season, when he was suffering from a shin problem, to make sure he made the squad. “When I had that pain it was sore, man,” Grealish says. “When I got the ball at my feet I’d forget about it a little bit, but when I was tracking back I’d be thinking: ‘f—ing hell’. I had it during January. We had a break, when we had Covid at the club, and the youngsters had to play against Liverpool [in the FA Cup] and I had it then. Because I was in my house, I was running on my treadmill and I don’t know whether that helped. I don’t think it did.
“The two games before my injury – the Brighton one away where we drew 0-0 and the week before when we beat Arsenal 1-0, it was agony. I had a scan and it was sore. I wasn’t meant to come back as quickly as I did, but I felt I had to because everyone in my position was flying for England. So I thought: ‘I need to get back here and show I’m fit and back to my normal self’.”
Grealish did just that and insists he is now over the problem and that he “can’t wait to get back out there on the pitch”. And if he had not been a footballer, would he have followed his father into the building trade? “I couldn’t be a plasterer,” Grealish says, smiling, before adding: “Club promoter”.
And he is not talking football – his workplace would have been in Tenerife or Ibiza. Or Boxpark.
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