Back in January, Jack Grealish said that one day he wants to sign for Real Madrid. To watch him play is to realise it is an ambition that one might be foolish to sneer at.
Witnessing the then 18-year-old terrify and torment Port Vale’s defenders on a chilly afternoon in Nottingham last April, it was difficult not to be reminded of another young player whose pencil thin legs, teenager haircut and plethora of stepovers baffled opposition full backs to the extent that they could only either watch, mesmerised as he danced by, or shrug and chop the little whippersnapper down.
It’s fitting that Grealish is now reportedly being looked up and down by Manchester United, where a similarly lanky teenager developed from a skinny showman into arguably the world’s best player. Brash, perhaps, but the similarities with Cristiano Ronaldo are a little eerie: an ability to play on the wing or as a support striker, bags of confidence, lightning quick legs, a burning desire to take players on and with the dream of playing at the Bernabeu.
That afternoon he was quiet in the first half, drifting around the edges of a physical game as Notts County, where he was spending the season on loan, fell to an early 2-0 deficit. But in the second half the relegation-threatened League One side awoke from their slumber and roared back to a 4-2 comeback win. Grealish set up County’s third with some ballet-dancing skills and a pinpoint cross. By the end, the enraged Port Vale defenders couldn’t get near him as he confidently skipped around and kept possession. It was a win that pretty much saved the club’s League One status.
Born in Solihull and a lifelong Villa supporter, Grealish signed for the club when he was just six years old. Since then he’s risen quickly, being named under-17 player of the year by the Football Assocation of Ireland, rising to play for his country at under-21 level and now in possession a handful of first team appearances for Villa.
Grealish’s contract with Villa runs out at the end of the season but despite rumors of interest from United, Chelsea and Tottenham the teenager told the Irish Independent this week that he wanted to stay in the Midlands.
“I’ve been a Villa season ticket holder since I was four, so my wish is to stay at the club,” he said. “Negotiations have started on a new contract and I’m hopeful it will get sorted… I just couldn’t see myself playing for any club other than Villa but you never know what can happen in football.”
As well as swagger and trickery on the field, Grealish also appears to be blessed with a confident – but likeable – personality away from it. A reporter from the Nottingham Evening Post described the player as a “hugely entertaining interview thanks to an endearing, boyish charm which makes him impossible not to like.” Yesterday, in reply to a tweet from Villa wishing him a happy birthday he replied: “I hope yous got me a cake”, a nod towards Yaya Toure’s bizarre episode with Manchester City.
Joking aside, Grealish appears likely to remain at the club and reports indicate that a four-year deal is in the table. Staying at Villa would likely be the most sensible move for the youngster, with the club enjoying a bright start to the new campaign. With a single appearance under his belt so far for the season, he’s far from a guaranteed regular. But his manager wants to see him push the senior players as hard as he possibly can.
“He’s got a lot of big players in front of him but he’s got to try to get in that group,” said Paul Lambert in July, following Grealish’s impressive performances during Villa’s preseason tour of the United States. “You’re looking for him to give me a problem, that he can do something… he looks like he can handle a football but he’s a young kid who’s still learning the ropes. But he’s done his chances no harm.”
There is plenty of work ahead. Grealish likely has plenty of filling out to do before he can cement himself in Lambert and assistant Roy Keane’s side. But with his level of ambition and raw talent, a starting place for Aston Villa could be just the start of a career full of potential.