Jack Grealish has joined Manchester City for £100m

Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

It was the scenario Aston Villa had always dreaded but the one Jack Grealish simply could not afford to ignore. 

When Manchester City submitted their £100 million bid for Villa’s talisman last Friday, triggering a release clause in the five-year contract Grealish signed last September, there was only ever going to be one outcome. That has now been reached, with Grealish joining the Premier League champions in a record-breaking transfer which eclipses the £89 million Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba

For Grealish, this is about the pursuit of trophies, league titles and performing in the Champions League. The lure of playing for Pep Guardiola – who pushed City’s hierarchy to complete the deal, identifying the Villa captain as one of the priority summer signings – and in a team with Kevin De Bruyne, his favourite Premier League player, is also hugely significant. 

Guardiola envisages Grealish as a wide forward or a No 8, and hopes to elevate his career to a different level, as he has done with De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan. He has a proven track record of improving young players, particularly in attacking positions, and Grealish’s arrival comes after a season where he produced his best numbers in the top division.

Grealish is also preparing to play alongside De Bruyne, who he admitted earlier this year is “the most perfect footballer in the Premier League”. After England’s Nations League game against Belgium last November, the pair swapped shirts and have a mutual admiration which stretches back years.

Grealish caught Kevin De Bruyne's eye when England played Belgium last year

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

For many Villa fans, there will be a crushing sense of disappointment. Grealish could easily have remained with Villa, become a one-club man and played the remainder of his career with the skipper’s armband. It would have been a similar scenario to Steven Gerrard rejecting Chelsea to stay at Liverpool in 2005.

Inevitably, there will be accusations that Grealish has jumped ship and joined City for the money. He will, of course, be guaranteed a significant uplift in salary but that is completely missing the point and underestimating his ambition. Grealish will be 26 in September and “giving it another year” at Villa is clearly not a risk he feels he can take when trophies are the target.

Villa’s progress under owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, and head coach Dean Smith, has been admirable and they are unquestionably on an upward trajectory. They finished 11th last season and the ownership have provided nearly £300 million on signings in three years, purely to propel Villa back into European contention.

The aim will be to do better again this year, and summer signings like Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendia and Leon Bailey underline that intention. But can Grealish afford another campaign where, at the end of it, Villa possibly finish eighth? He is yet to play in any European competition at club level and City can offer him Champions League football next month. There are no cast-iron guarantees he will ever get that chance if he had stayed at Villa, as painful as it sounds.

Grealish’s love for his hometown club cannot be in question. He returned for training as expected last weekend and going on strike, as Harry Kane has done at Tottenham, was never an option. The stories around his claret-and-blue upbringing sound like whimsy, but are all true – including how he used to jump into the bushes of his garden and pretend he was celebrating a goal in the Holte End. At the age of six, he used to rush back from school to watch Betamax videos of the club during Ron Atkinson’s tenure.

Thanks for the memories, @JackGrealish. pic.twitter.com/yQ1RYPmiU3

— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) August 5, 2021

It was around that age when he first joined Villa’s youth system, after being spotted playing for Highgate United under-7s. He was a season ticket holder in the Doug Ellis stand for years with his family. His hero growing up was Gabby Agbonlahor, due to the striker always scoring in local derbies, and especially bitter enemies Birmingham City. Since breaking into the first-team, he has helped the club return to the Premier League from the Championship – turning down moves in that period – and established himself as captain. Grealish has been at the forefront of Villa’s progress.

Those memories will always be with him, and who knows? He may even return as a player one day, as Ashley Young has done this summer. Tuesday, November 30 is the date when he is set to return to Villa Park this season with City. It will be intriguing to hear the reaction he receives, and whether some of the anger has subsided.

A number of fans have argued that this move has smeared his legacy. Some insist the club is not Jack Grealish FC, and they will continue their progress under Sawiris and Edens. The path from Villa to City has been well-trodden over the years, with Gareth Barry, James Milner and Fabian Delph all making the same move.

Villa must hope to emulate Leicester, who suffer the sale of a key player every summer but still manage to stay strong. Villa have bought shrewdly, and remain an attractive club to join. It may not only be Grealish who is beginning an exciting new era.