England's Jack Grealish on capturing the imagination of a nation at EURO 2020
Saturday, 3 July 2021
"I just try and play every game as if I'm playing Under-18s or Under-23s football at Villa," the 'Brum town Baggio' tells EURO2020.com.
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If a computer were creating a composite footballer to capture the imagination of England supporters, it is quite easy to imagine it coming up with Jack Grealish.
After all, you have got the echoes of past heroes with David Beckham’s No7 and shiny hair, the dribbling ability redolent of Paul Gascoigne, and, well, take your pick of 1970s showmen for the socks slung low on those big calves. There's even a song in his honour by the Manor, titled simply Jack Grealish and featuring the phrase "Brum town Baggio" in honour of the Birmingham-born Aston Villa skipper.
All that said, the 25-year-old is his own man. Within the strict parameters of today's elite football, with all its science and data and systems, he offers something of the free spirit. Off the pitch, it’s fair to say he is seldom first down for breakfast in the morning. And he is usually among the last out for training at St George's Park. (Back at Villa, when his manager Dean Smith moved the time of training to midday each day citing the sleeping patterns of today's young footballers, it is hard to envisage Grealish, his captain, complaining).
That sense of a free spirit comes across in conversation with Grealish. His love of an afternoon nap meant newspaper reporters at St George's Park on Thursday had to wait a little longer than scheduled for his appearance but he was worth the wait: open and unguarded, raising laughs as he pictured himself as a nightclub promoter "in Tenerife or Ibiza" had his football dreams not come true. As a colleague noted afterwards, it was like chatting to a bloke in the pub.
This is not to underplay Grealish’s dedication – on his first call-up he asked Southgate what specific improvements he could make "to get into his side", such as his work off the ball. And yet that free spirit is seen on matchdays too. When fans call his name, as they did before he took the pitch as a substitute against Scotland and Germany, he insists he feels no pressure. As he told EURO2020.com earlier in the tournament: "I just try and play every game as if I'm playing Under-18s or Under-23s football at Villa." He added: "You know, I've done it my whole life, so why would I change the way I play, or the way I do stuff, just because it's a bigger game, maybe?"
He certainly did stuff against Germany after his 69th-minute introduction in the round of 16. He moved the ball on to Luke Shaw to cross for Raheem Sterling's goal in the 75th minute. Eleven minutes later came his own centre for Harry Kane to score. Little wonder he was too excited to sleep that night, staying awake till 4am re-watching the whole match.
His was only the fourth assist by an England substitute at a major tournament in the past 50 years. Two came at the 1986 FIFA World Cup – Gary Stevens and John Barnes providing for Gary Lineker against Paraguay and Argentina respectively – and the third was a Theo Walcott run and cross for Danny Welbeck’s goal against Sweden at EURO 2012.
"I don't think it's any secret to anyone why the manager brought me on and that was to try and create something," Grealish told EURO2020.com of his impact. It means that from 115 minutes on the pitch so far in the tournament, he has two assists (the other coming from his only start against the Czech Republic) along with three take-ons, all successful.
This will increase calls for him to start the quarter-final against Ukraine but that is far from guaranteed and not just for England's "scary" (Grealish’s word) attacking options. The shin complaint which meant he arrived at the EURO having started only two Villa games since February still requires a little management. There is also the appeal of using Grealish to come on and run at tiring defences.
If he does have to don the super-sub cape again, he will be ready. "I don't think you really need any mindset," he said of adjusting to that role. "It's a team game. I wasn't in the starting XI [against Germany] and was on the bench, so you're going to come on and try and impact the game. Whether you're an attacker or a defender, that's what you're going to do. If you're a defender, you're going to defend for your life, and if you're an attacker, you're going to want to try and score or create. And, fortunately, I did that." Worth the wait, once more.