This week the last man to lead Aston Villa to major silverware met the man who hopes to be the next. These days Andy Townsend is better known as a pundit and broadcaster, but when he sat down with Jack Grealish, it was he who ended up fielding the questions. Grealish may barely have been born when Townsend captained Villa to victory in the 1996 League Cup final, but as a lifelong Villa fan he has watched all the tapes and knows his history. And as the current Villa captain, there was one thing he wanted to ask Townsend above all: what it felt like to lift the trophy.
It was one of those rare moments of clarity: an insight, perhaps, into what really motivates a gifted 24-year-old footballer with the world at his feet and expectation on his shoulders. Now players have access to all the information they could possibly need: physical data, opposition scouting, tactical expertise. But the video analyst cannot tell you what it is like climbing the steps to Wembley’s royal box. The strength and conditioning coach cannot tell you how it feels to win your hometown club’s first trophy in a generation. And you suspect that for Grealish, football has always been less about the accumulation of material goods and more about the pursuit of these elusive sensations.
You can see it, too, in the way he plays. The languid, gloopy dribbles; the neat swivels and sidesteps; the syncopated passes to feet; the signature tics and traits of a player who seems to navigate the game by feel. “Anyone who doesn’t recognise that Jack Grealish is special,” his former manager Tim Sherwood proposes, “doesn’t know football.” Often Grealish is described as an “old-school player”, a term that evokes the romance of the unschooled street urchin. In reality, he is an academy product just like the rest: on Villa’s books since the age of six, technically tidy, tactically disciplined. The romance he instead represents is that of the condemned talisman: the one-man hurricane dragging a struggling club up by its bootstraps.
Is any player in the top flight more indispensable to his team than Grealish is to Villa? In this season’s Premier League he leads the way in the following departments for his club: goals, assists, key passes, touches of the ball and minutes on the field. Grealish is Villa’s most booked player and their most fouled player, the player who has made the most passes and been dispossessed the most. All this while playing on the left wing in a team who – as befitting a side 17th in the table – spend most of their time defending. Small wonder Pep Guardiola, manager of the Manchester City team who stand in Villa’s way at Wembley on Sunday, describes him as one of the best players in the league.
There was nothing inevitable about any of this. For much of the five years since he burst to prominence aged 19, in a spectacular display against Liverpool in an FA Cup semi-final, it appeared the story of Grealish would ultimately be one of yearning: a tale of unrequited talent, squandered opportunity and hype outpacing substance. There were the years of relegation and ruin, of public shaming and private turmoil. There was the photograph of him passed out in the street in Tenerife after a night out, an open packet of cigarettes on the ground beside him. Then there was the time he was told off by the obdurately morose Rémi Garde for “excessive smiling”. To an extent, Grealish was both sinner and sinned against: a young player who, for all the lurid scrutiny he attracted, did not help himself at times.
“It’s just growing up,” says Sherwood, who managed Grealish during that turbulent summer of 2015. “It’s difficult for these boys: they come from very little, they get too much too early. Thankfully for him, the penny dropped. People make mistakes, but he’s come through the other side.”
In a way, then, Grealish’s three seasons away from the Premier League were an ideal learning curve: a chance to hone and develop his game away from the harsh glare. With the help of the fitness coach Oli Stevenson, he worked relentlessly on his stamina and conditioning. The strength was always there: a legacy, perhaps, of a youth spent fending off tackles in Gaelic football in Solihull. But now it came with endurance and resilience, a body battle-hardened by Championship defences.
Even so, at the start of this season there was little to suggest Grealish might be anything more than useful at this level. He had never scored more than six goals in a season, and a fatal mistake against Tottenham on the opening day was a reminder of his occasional nonchalance in possession. It took a tactical shift from the manager, Dean Smith, as well as a pep talk from the assistant, John Terry, to unlock Grealish’s potential.
Smith moved Grealish to the left wing, a position he disliked, but with a freedom he enjoyed. With Terry urging him to get in more dangerous positions and add goals and assists to his game, Grealish found himself able to influence play in new and unpredictable ways. He drops in to receive. He roams from flank to flank. Against Manchester City last month, he even played as an auxiliary forward, although the result – a 6-1 defeat – rendered it a swiftly curtailed experiment.
“He would tell you his best position is outside left, really loose, with a full-back to target,” says Sherwood. “He lures people into areas where they don’t want to be. He takes the ball in tight areas, sees the pass and gives it at the right time. That’s why he takes so many fouls. He creates traffic around him.”
And yet for all of this, perhaps Grealish’s real value cannot simply be measured in key performance metrics. Of the XI who started last May’s Championship play-off final, only three or four are likely to feature here. In shifting times, amid unprecedented turbulence, Grealish has been a constant: a club stalwart and a local hero to boot. Perhaps none of this is ultimately sustainable; perhaps Villa will be relegated and Grealish will sign as rumoured for Manchester United in the summer, and he will become just another very good player at an elite club. But for now, in claret and blue, he represents hope.
Perhaps, in a way, Villa’s only hope. Certainly it is hard to envisage anything other than a City win, another vindication for a team of otherworldly talents. But Grealish has overcome the odds before and may just believe he can do so again. What will it feel like to lead his beloved Villa up the Wembley steps after a startling and unlikely triumph? Some things you just have to find out for yourself.