Jack Grealish's free spirit, style and famous calves have helped to take him to the next level. The Manchester City star spoke to Champions Journal.
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"I actually don’t do anything," says Jack Grealish.
"You don’t do anything?"
Under discussion, during an interview with Champions Journal at the City Football Academy training facility, are the most famous calves in English football, those supersized specimens that emerge from a pair of rolled-down socks. A throwback look for a very 21st century footballer, the Manchester City and England winger with an Alice band in his hair, the No10 on his shirt and that £100m price tag on his shoulders.
Grealish will return to his transfer and its accompanying challenges later, but first things first: those calves. “It’s just something that runs in the family,” he explains. “My grandad always had big calves when he used to play football. But no, I don’t do any calf exercises or calf routines in the gym or anything. Honestly, it’s just something that I’ve had since I was young.”
And the socks, which call to mind some 1970s maverick almost as much as his dribbling skills and wide grin? “I think I was about 14 or 15 and we were sponsored by Macron at Aston Villa, and the socks used to shrink in the wash. In training, obviously, I couldn’t get them over my calves because the socks were so small. So I started wearing them below my calves in training – and that season I ended up playing really well. So then I started wearing my socks below my calves in games as well. It was just something that stuck because I’d had such a good season.”
Footballers can be superstitious creatures, finding assurance in little habits amid the pressure swirls of professional sport. Something, you suspect, that Grealish will have appreciated more than ever this season, following the upheaval of leaving his boyhood club, Aston Villa, for Pep Guardiola’s English champions. Last August, a month before his 26th birthday, he swapped Birmingham for Manchester and became the most expensive English footballer ever. There were tears when he said goodbye at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground and his reflections today hint at a meld of emotions.
“It was a massive decision,” says Grealish, a boyhood season-ticket holder who grew up in Villa’s academy and spent seven years in the first team. “I’d been at Villa my whole life, since I was six – obviously growing up, playing for my boyhood club and captaining them. To leave was a difficult decision, I’ve said it plenty of times, but it was something I felt was right at the time. I think it was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone.
“When I came here it was different because at Villa, and also when I go away with the national team, you have the same culture, you have the same nationality; most of the lads are English. And here there are only, what, four or five of us who are English.”
He marvels, in his Brummie brogue, at the linguistic acrobatics of his Brazilian team-mates Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. “Gabi and Dinho, I’m sure they can speak three or four languages each, so it’s unbelievable. It’s something I’d absolutely love to do, but I don’t think I’ve got the patience for it.”
Maybe, but he has needed patience when it comes to the football lessons he is learning under Pep Guardiola. A player accustomed to having the licence to roam from his left-flank berth under Dean Smith at Aston Villa has had to adjust to less freedom now that he is no longer the main man; he’s become a cog in a meticulously managed machine. “You know, I’ve had my injuries this season,” he notes, though his biggest frustration is related to the field. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I’d love to have scored more and assisted more, but I feel like I’ve been playing well, even when I haven’t been scoring or assisting.” Moreover, the view of his manager is that “there are players that make the team play good and are not in the statistics”.
In return, Grealish has only words of praise for Guardiola. “He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s just an addict to football. As soon as he steps foot in the building, everything’s just about football, everything’s just for the next game. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s a brilliant manager who helps the team so much. I’ve said at times this season that he’s won games by himself, with the way he’s set us up and the tactics he’s given us, and we’ve gone out there and done the job.”
As well as footballing lessons, Grealish is still gaining knowledge elsewhere – not least about how to handle football’s steep emotional swings. He confesses that this has been a challenge for him, first as the boy wonder and later captain at Villa, now as the £100m man at City. He is still learning “just to cope with the good times and cope with the bad times. I think in football, it’s such a rollercoaster ride; you know, you’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated.”
Grealish goes on to cite the advice given him by one of his former academy coaches at Villa, Steve Burns. “He always used to say, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ Especially as time goes on, I think there’s such a mental side to football now, where you need to be in the right mindset. And you know, pressure is a big thing in football, especially for me coming here for the price tag that I came for, and being English; I think the media try and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders.”
The “being English” bit is worth dwelling on. The spotlight burned on Grealish last summer when he emerged as a Wembley crowd favourite during England’s run to the EURO 2020 final. “Have you ever heard the quote that you don’t realise how big or how good something is until it’s gone? That’s the case with me. Now I look back on it and I swear, it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life, being there for about six or seven weeks. England were so good to us, they did everything to make us feel at home at our hotel and at our camp. I absolutely loved it. It was a shame that we couldn’t get over the last hurdle in the final and losing on penalties is the worst way to lose. There are a few regrets, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country. I think it was a time that brought the whole country together.”
Grealish will be hoping to lace up his boots for England again at the World Cup later this year, but first comes the quest for honours with City – and savouring his first season of Champions League football. He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’
“I didn’t really think anything of it at the time but then, when I was standing there, I just thought back to when he said it, and I was like ‘No, this is unbelievable,’ listening to that anthem. It’s such an iconic anthem as well. Then to have the start that I did, scoring and assisting in the same game on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me.”
That was in September’s 6-3 home win over Leipzig, an explosive start as last season’s runners-up set about trying to go one step further. The hope now is for an even more spectacular conclusion. “Most of the lads here have won everything, numerous times as well, so I think that’s the one that everyone wants this year,” says a man still seeking his first senior honours. “It’s brilliant if we can go and win every competition that we’re in, but that being one that we haven’t won yet, that’s what we have our eyes on.”
This is an edited extract from the new issue of Champions Journal, the official magazine of the Champions League. You can buy a copy at champions-journal.com