JACK Grealish is playing a dangerous game. By dithering over his decision to declare for Ireland, the Aston Villa teenager could be about to alienate the very fans he wants to woo.
Nearly four months have passed since Martin O’Neill met the player, along with his father, and agent, Kevin. A cordial chat preceded the announcement that Grealish would be taking time to address his club situation.
With his contract at Aston Villa expiring at the end of this season, and essentially his financial future hanging in balance, the decision had its logic. Not yet ready for senior international football, a brief break from the Under 21 scene to conclude contract talks seemed appropriate.
“I understand he is trying to make his way at Villa and hoping to break into the team, so I don’t want to put undue pressure on someone,” said O’Neill. “While we want to influence something, I really want the decision (about whether Grealish will opt for Ireland or England) to be made by the player and his family.”
Since then O’Neill has steadfastly refused to chase after Grealish. And rightly so. The ball is in his court. Should he choose to play for Ireland then he will be welcomed by open arms, even by Stephen Quinn, who had a run-in with the midfielder during a Premier League game between Hull and Villa, which ended with Grealish alledgedly being called a ‘plastic Paddy’.
“There was a bit of banter,” Quinn explained. “The story unfortunately grew arms and legs and ran away with itself. I think it was the front page of the newspapers at one point.
“There are a lot worse things happening in the world than me having a bit of banter with a fellow Irish, or potentially Irish player so…”
That Grealish is a player of potential is unquestioned. Wonderfully balanced, technically proficient, he is by some distance the best prospect coming through the underage ranks right now, and a player Brian Kerr believes to be the best we have produced since Damien Duff and Robbie Keane.
Richard Dunne concurs: “If we can get hold of him he can really be a star for Ireland for the next 15 years or so,” said Dunne. “I’ve seen him at training (at Aston Villa) and have seen a couple of clips of him at Notts County (where Grealish spent a year on loan). I have seen how good he is. If Ireland can get him it would be brilliant.”
But will we get him? As the months pass and no decision is made, concern increases and questions arise.
Why wait? If you are Irish, say so. If you feel English, fair enough. But make the call.
Kevin Kilbane, who rejected England as a teenager before going on to win 110 caps for his country, reckons Grealish needs to go with his heart rather than his head.
“Jack could win 50 caps for us. Easy. I’d like him to commit and it is not unrealistic for an Irish supporter to want a player who is desperate to do well for their team,” said Kilbane.
“The amount of passion within the Irish lads for the Irish team is unbelievable. I mean real, real passion for playing underage football. You see so many drop outs from other countries at youth level. You don’t see that in Ireland. They desperately want to play for their country.
“I know the game is becoming a money-motivated industry. And I know players have some people in their ear telling them to hold off to play for England because it will make them more money.
“But if you feel Irish, you should play for Ireland. And if you don’t then the best of luck to you wherever you go and play.”
And that is the crunch of the issue. Men like Kilbane, Gary Breen and David Connolly heard enough sniping comments from Ireland supporters over the years about their English accents.
Yet to all intents and purposes, they were as Irish as the players born in Dublin, Cork, Wexford or Galway.
Others had a mixed heritage and played for Ireland without feeling anywhere nearly as passionately about the nation. Which was fine.
But what gets on the nerves of Irish supporters is when players engage in a game of chase. Stephen Ireland, as a prime example, is still occasionally the subject of songs of abuse from the singing section at the Aviva Stadium, where Ireland’s most passionate fans congregate.
He could, and should, be loved. But by continually suggesting he is willing to return, without ever picking up the phone to call the manager and say, ‘I’m in’, he has left a lot of people miffed.
Grealish, if he isn’t careful, could soon be tagged with the same label. “I’m not expecting any decision soon,” said Roy Keane, the Ireland and former Villa assistant manager. At 19, time may be on the youngster’s side in terms of his career but the longer we wait for a definitive call, the more dubious we feel about his sincerity.
And believe it or not, these things still matter to some of us.