Why O’Neill knew he had no chance with Grealish
➤ Former Ireland coach says meeting ‘Brummie’ father made it clear that Villa captain would always opt for England
When Jack Grealish was called up by England for the first time this week, it was actually the third time he had been asked to play for a senior international side. It may have been forgotten on this side of the Irish Sea, but Grealish was named the Republic of Ireland’s young player of the year five years ago, shortly before he was twice asked by Martin O’Neill whether he wanted to graduate from the country’s under-21 side to the full international set-up.
If Grealish had said yes, it could have made all the difference to Ireland’s well-organised, hard-working but unimaginative team. But, as O’Neill recalled, it took one visit to the youngster’s family home to discover that he saw his future in the white of England, rather than the green of Ireland.
“When it became clear that, after he had cemented his place in the Aston Villa first team, he had a decision to make in terms of his international allegiance, Roy [Keane] and I went to meet Jack and his father,” O’Neill said. “The thing that struck us both was that not only was Jack born and raised in Birmingham, his dad was a Brummie, too.
“Jack is English. Although he had enjoyed playing for Ireland, we quickly realised that was how he saw himself. We hoped he would choose to play for Ireland, but we understood it. The association with Ireland was through the grandparents, not even his father.
“It was frustrating at the time but, in those conversations, it was also clear that, commercially, there would be a bigger boost for him if he could make it with England.”
Whatever bitterness there was when he refused those senior callups has been supplanted by a more melancholic sense of what might have been. There is also a vague sense of amusement that, aged 24, he has not become the superstar for England he would have been for many years with Ireland. Grealish (right) will be booed if he ever plays in Dublin, but he is not disliked.
That is reserved for Declan Rice, who played three times for Ireland’s senior team and insisted there was no debate to be had over who he would represent, before slipping silently away to St George’s Park after the English Football Association, led by manager Gareth Southgate, urged him to switch.
Yet, for all the begrudging acceptance that Grealish followed his heart – as well as commercial considerations – the Villa captain was so obviously the sort of player Ireland lacked. Skilful, creative, brave and imaginative on the ball, he was everything O’Neill’s team needed. He would have scored goals and he would have created even more.
“He’s clever, he is very good at shielding the ball with his body and has a good eye for an inside pass,” O’Neill said. “He would have given us something we so obviously lacked in the final third. He had qualities as a player we did not have in abundance in the squad. He would have played in the European
‘He had qualities as a player we did not have in abundance in the squad’
Championship in 2016 and, who knows, if he had been available, we may well have got to the World Cup in 2018. He would have added a different dimension to our play. “There is no resentment. I understood the decision he made and accepted it at the time. The challenge for Jack, as I think Gareth Southgate has said, is England have a number of players who play in the same position as he does who are ahead of him at this moment. Some of those, like Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, are also younger. “Gareth has also said, the position he sees Jack playing [as a No 10] does not really fit into the way England play. He will want his first cap, but he would have played many, many times for Ireland by now.”
Smart set (from left): Joe Gomez, Tammy Abraham and Harry Kane model the new England Nike kits released yesterday