Jack Grealish & the spin of a man dancing around the cynics

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England might have lost their Nations League game in Belgium, but the performance of Jack Grealish has dominated discussions to the point where you wonder whether it was more important than the result itself.

Grealish’s involvement for his country this season has ensured he’s now officially cap-tied, having waited years for a debut after pledging his international future to England.

Not only has he shown that you can earn international recognition with patience and talent, but – perhaps more crucially – he’s shown that, as long as you’re good enough, you can carry your style into that realm as well as your form.

For right or wrong, there’s been a sense from some that Grealish wouldn’t be able to treat England games the same way he treats Aston Villa matches.

Arrogance is considered good when you’re punching up, but as soon as you take your place within a more dominant structure it’s all about conserving superiority over nominally inferior teams and, in short, not taking the piss. There’s probably a wider societal discussion to be had here, but I’ve only got so many words and so much time.

Perhaps England boss Gareth Southgate was so reluctant to bring Grealish into his senior squad because he was worried the 25-year-old wouldn’t be able to stop persisting with his normal bullshit just because he had the added responsibility of pulling on an England shirt.

What the manager didn’t realise – but now might – is that he was treating a feature as a bug.

The moment

As Grealish watches the ball onto his heel, Thomas Meunier is all of us.

The Belgian turns 30 next year, and his attempt to rein in the England playmaker is the act of a man trying to recapture his own footballing youth, using limbs whose utility can be seen deteriorating in front of his eyes.

He has realised Grealish, like in his own days of being the new kid on the block, cannot be caught. With this realisation staring him in the face, can any of us honestly say we wouldn’t reflexively lash out in the same way?

Grealish’s spin itself is balletic; a mockery of anyone with the temerity to attempt to contain his flair either on or off the field. He is dancing around pre-emptive criticisms of his play and its place in this genre of competitive football, reminding the critics that what he does is not solely reliant on his place in an entertaining Villa side.

The spin, too, is illustrative. It tells cynics he is not a watched pot footballer or a highlight reel player; quite literally, they can face away from him for as long as they like, but he will have always been there. No number of performatively closed eyes will change that.

‘You think I’m a luxury player?’ he implores. ‘Well, could a luxury player do this?’ Okay, yes, probably, but not to the point that it elicits the kind of frustrated swing of a leg which would normally bring a card the way of the person responsible.

If this is what Jack Grealish is capable of against one of the best teams in the world, we shouldn’t have to be too worried about his suitability in this England team.

What’s more, he was able to pull this out in a well-rounded overall performance, rather than just pulling out tricks for the sake of a Twitter compilation.

There’s no need for us to second-guess Gareth Southgate’s entire motivation for taking so long to hand Grealish his opportunity. What’s important now is ensuring he remains in the set-up and remains allowed to express himself unchecked.

The only thing worse than not knowing whether a player can bring this energy to the international sphere is knowing he can do it, only to create a system which doesn’t give him the opportunity.

By Tom Victor


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