For­got­ten man Gre­al­ish ready to re­mind us what all the fuss was about:

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker

Re­mem­ber Jack Gre­al­ish? Re­mem­ber the fuss? Re­mem­ber when he was the cen­tre of the uni­verse for a few weeks as he hov­ered over the Ir­ish Sea de­bat­ing where his in­ter­na­tional fu­ture lay?

There was Ir­ish out­cry when Gre­al­ish chose Eng­land. There was English smug­ness. And then? And then young Jack Gre­al­ish went back to As­ton Villa and, far from play­ing his way into the se­nior Eng­land set-up, he in­stead faded to the pe­riph­ery of a Villa team free­wheel­ing un­con­trol­lably to Pre­mier League rel­e­ga­tion.

It was not his fault. Gre­al­ish had just gone from in­ex­pe­ri­enced teenager to in­ex­pe­ri­enced 20-year-old when he was pushed to choose his foot­ball na­tion­al­ity. It was late Septem­ber 2015 and, look­ing back, at that stage in his em­bry­onic ca­reer Gre­al­ish had started and fin­ished six 90-minute Pre­mier League games. Six.

There had been other starts, cur­tailed by sub­sti­tu­tions, and there had been ap­pear­ances from the bench. There was the star­burst FA Cup semi-fi­nal per­for­mance at Wem­b­ley against Liver­pool. There had been a sea­son on loan at Notts County, where he held his own in League One.

But Gre­al­ish was a novice, one with a ca­reer-defin­ing de­ci­sion on his hands. It just did not look that way.

He had been 16 when placed on the Villa bench for a Pre­mier League game against Chelsea in 2012. It was so long ago Daniel Stur­ridge scored for Chelsea. Gre­al­ish was 16 and the fu­ture – Villa’s fu­ture, Ire­land’s fu­ture, then Eng­land’s fu­ture. It was too much – pres­sure, scru­tiny, ex­pec­ta­tion – too young.

Front-page con­tro­versy

Some six event­ful and some­times un­event­ful years on, when front-page con­tro­versy has been as promi­nent as back-page suc­cess, where rel­e­ga­tion at a club in tur­moil in­cluded per­sonal dis­ci­plinary pun­ish­ments, there fol­lowed a de­bil­i­tat­ing kid­ney in­jury in Villa’s last pre-sea­son that kept Gre­al­ish out un­til Novem­ber. He had drifted to the mar­gins of English foot­ball and our aware­ness. He had not won an Eng­land cap. Scru­tiny went else­where.

Then on Mon­day, on a dark Jan­uary even­ing, the lat­est of the six man­agers Gre­al­ish has wit­nessed at Villa Park, Steve Bruce, shone a light on Jack Gre­al­ish and de­clared: “All of a sud­den he looks like a man.”

It was not claim heard pre­vi­ously about the boy.

Gre­al­ish had just played the first 80 min­utes of Villa’s 5-0 Cham­pi­onship vic­tory over pro­mo­tion ri­vals Bris­tol City two days af­ter com­ing on in the first half of the away win at Mid­dles­brough. Villa had six points and fresh mo­men­tum, Gre­al­ish had two hours of sig­nif­i­cant foot­ball. Jack was back.

Prior to that he had com­pleted only three 90 min­utes, so Boro-Bris­tol was a stamina test.

“His run­ning abil­ity, his strength, it’s there to see,” Bruce said, men­tion­ing Gre­al­ish’s long hours in the gym with the club’s strength-and-con­di­tion­ing coach. Bruce con­cluded: “Let’s be fair, he’s only 22.”

It was a per­ti­nent com­ment. There is a bru­tal as­sump­tion in pro­fes­sional foot­ball that a 22-year-old should be a fully-formed player, es­pe­cially if he was with the first team aged 16. Con­sid­er­ing it is im­ma­ture in so many ways as an in­dus­try – im­pa­tience be­ing part of that – it is ironic that foot­ball should de­mand ma­tu­rity from boys on the way to be­com­ing men.

At 22 Bruce, a fu­ture Manch­ester United leader, was play­ing for Gilling­ham. There he re­ceived none of the fo­cus Gre­al­ish has en­dured, or en­joyed. Bruce de­vel­oped, made mis­takes, im­proved, went back­wards, ma­tured – off cam­era.

But that was 1982. Gre­al­ish was not born un­til Septem­ber 1995 and by the time Septem­ber 2015 came along the world of English foot­ball bore a high vis­i­bil­ity jacket. Gifted boys – English, Ir­ish, from wher­ever – were in the pub­lic in­ter­est.

Hav­ing, via his Ir­ish grand­par­ents, first pulled on an Ir­ish jersey at 14, Gre­al­ish played through the ages for the Repub­lic to un­der- 21 level. He re­sisted, more than once, the court­ing of Eng­land.

But it was there. He was in de­mand, re­ceiv­ing con­stant praise and for a teenager to find bal­ance in such cir­cum­stances is not easy.

There was progress. As shown by his Pre­mier League ap­pear­ances, it was too early for Gre­al­ish to be con­sid­ered a mid­fielder ca­pa­ble of con­sis­tency, but there were signs of abil­ity and one of those Villa man­agers he has seen, Tim Sher­wood, said Gre­al­ish “could be the hero” the club were wait­ing for.

What helped was that Gre­al­ish is a lo­cal, a fan and has a great, great grand­dad called Billy Gar­raty who played for Villa in the 1905 FA Cup fi­nal. Jack Gre­al­ish was a born Vil­lain.

Na­tional fig­ure

Grow­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion mor­phed into some­thing larger with his dis­play in the FA Cup semi-fi­nal win over Liver­pool at Wem­b­ley. He be­came a na­tional fig­ure, or a dual na­tional fig­ure.

Less than six months later he was sup­posed to know where his in­ter­na­tional fu­ture lay. Gre­al­ish made his choice and can­not go back on it.

And then the frenzy died. Villa plum­meted. He played 16 times in the Pre­mier League rel­e­ga­tion sea­son – 16 de­feats. That could dis­il­lu­sion a lad.

Gasp­ing for breath in the Cham­pi­onship, last sea­son he and Villa and fin­ished 13th. Gre­al­ish was a long way from the lime­light.

But, if Bruce is right, it may have done no harm. It’s the FA Cup again to­day, at home to Peter­bor­ough, an­other chance to get min­utes in legs to add to those hours in the gym. Throw in some dis­ap­point­ment, dis­ci­pline, time in the shade and they will all have con­trib­uted if the wanted boy Jack Gre­al­ish is about to ex­pose our im­pa­tience and re­mind us what the fuss was about by turn­ing into a man.

Gre­al­ish was 16 and the fu­ture – Villa’s fu­ture, Ire­land’s fu­ture, then Eng­land’s fu­ture. It was too much – pres­sure, scru­tiny, ex­pec­ta­tion – too young

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NATHAN STIRK/GETTY IM­AGES

As­ton Villa’s Jack Gre­al­ish gets his shot away as Repub­lic of Ire­land in­ter­na­tional Richard Keogh closes in dur­ing the English Cham­pi­onship match against Derby County last month: Steve Bruce, his man­ager, said re­cently: “His run­ning abil­ity, his strength, it’s there to see . . . Let’s be fair, he’s only 22.”

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