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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Football - By Luke Ed­wards

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

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