Jack Grealish is the name on everybody’s lips at the moment following his big-money transfer to Manchester City.
Whilst it might represent something of a dream move in terms of the chance to win trophies, leaving his boyhood club will have been hard.
Aston Villa has run through the veins of the Grealish family for more than a century. The 25-year-old’s great, great grandfather Billy Garraty was part of the team that won the FA Cup in 1905, while Grealish’s dad, Kevin, has been there to experience every major success of the last 40 years – including a league title triumph in 1981, the European Cup the following season and the League Cup in 1994 and 1996, as well promotion to the Premier League.
Grealish himself stood on the Holte End as a boy, idolising the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor and Paul Merson and longing to one day grace the Villa Park turf himself.
Grealish was obsessed with football from an early age. All he wanted to do was kick a ball, and that was what he did – in the school playground, in the back garden of the family home in Solihull, a local park or anywhere else there was space to do so.
Midlands talent spotter Jim Thomas first found Grealish when he was just six years old and he joined Villa’s academy, much to the delight of his father, two years later. As a schoolboy, Grealish trained with Villa three nights a week and the club were soon aware that they had a gem on their hands.
At the age of 16, in March 2012, Grealish enjoyed his first taste of the Premier League, picked by then-Villa boss Alex McLeish as a substitute during a 4-2 home defeat to Chelsea. The next season he played a starring role in the Villa Under-19 side that won the UEFA NextGen Series – Europe’s leading youth competition.
A few more of his rough edges were smoothed off during a loan spell at Notts County during the 2013-14 campaign. The physicality of third-tier football toughened him up. He was kicked from pillar to post, yet still came back for more and was pivotal in the Magpies staving off relegation that season.
Grealish’s first senior goal came at Meadow Lane in a 3-1 win against Gillingham. He collected a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area, effortlessly glided past four defenders, before firing a rising shot into the roof of the net. He rushed to the main stand to embrace his dad, receiving a yellow card for over-celebrating.
He struggled for first-team opportunities at Villa under Paul Lambert, who viewed the teenager as not disciplined enough for the team. Tim Sherwood had much more regard for Grealish’s maverick abilities and early into his reign Grealish was starring in Villa’s surprise FA Cup semi-final win against Liverpool.
The 19-year-old had a hand in both Villa goals in a 2-1 victory and played with a calm that belied his years in this hothouse atmosphere – undoubtedly the watershed moment of his career.
With Grealish’s profile growing on the pitch, he inevitably drew increasing attention off it. In 2015, photographs emerged of him inhaling laughing gas and a couple of months later more pictures emerged of him sprawled on the street during a holiday in Tenerife.
In 2016, Villa fined him for attending a rowdy late-night party that got out of hand at a Birmingham hotel, while during the first lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic Grealish was charged with driving without due care and attention, and failing to stop at or report a collision.
It did not affect his performances, although he again drew criticism following Villa’s relegation from the Premier League. He felt the pain more than most – and the pressure from fans to get back up, which increased with every year that passed.
Villa finished 13th in their first season in the Championship, and more heartache followed in 2017-18 when they lost the play-off final against Fulham at Wembley.
When Dean Smith, another boyhood Villa fan, replaced Steve Bruce as manager in October 2018, Grealish was made captain.
One of his most eventful games for Villa came soon after taking the armband, against city rivals Birmingham at St Andrew’s. A home supporter ran on to the pitch and attacked Grealish from behind, swinging a punch to the back of his head. Grealish would have the last laugh, however, scoring the winning goal at the end where the Villa fans were congregated.
He said in the post-match interview: “It’s the best day of my life. To come here for the first time as captain of Aston Villa and score the winner – it’s what dreams are made of.”
Villa went on to reach the play-off final and beat West Brom at Wembley, winning promotion back to the Premier League.
Grealish’s heroics continued the following season as he scored the goal that kept them in the Premier League in a 1-1 draw at West Ham on the final day of the season.
He signed a new five-year contract in September 2020 and made his England debut that same month as a 76th-minute substitute in a goalless draw against Denmark, having opted for the Three Lions despite playing at various ages groups for Republic of Ireland.
Another fine season saw him named in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the European Championship.
There was a huge clamour for Grealish to play but the 25-year-old was used very sparingly, impressing during his cameo appearances as England reached the final.
He has showed he belongs at the top level. His exceptional ability to dribble at pace and draw fouls. Lashings of creativity. Slicked back hair. Rolled down socks revealing shin pads not much bigger than a postage stamp. Grealish has no trouble standing out on the football pitch, and that will continue at Manchester City.