Jack Grealish rocketed through the Ireland ranks as a youngster but as he prepares to face them for the first time since ditching them for England, there’s no ill-feeling (unlike with Declan Rice)… just regret at what might have been
- Jack Grealish could line up for England against Republic of Ireland on Thursday
- Aston Villa star represented land of his grandparents up to under-21 level
- But there is no resentment in Ireland over his decision to choose England
- Martin O’Neill watched Grealish’s ascent closely but hesitated with call-up
- Ireland’s boss was left in no doubt English-born Grealish would turn them down
Still just 17 and yet to kick a ball for Aston Villa, he was already a starter for Ireland’s Under 21s. In Dublin and beyond, word was spreading of the English-born prodigy seemingly so happy in green.
With hindsight, Ireland should have acted then, playing on the lure of international exposure for one so young and stitching his allegiance to their jersey.
Jack Grealish played for the Republic of Ireland up to Under-21 level before choosing England
The FA of Ireland awarded Grealish, seen here with grandmother Margaret, their Under-21 Player of the Year award in 2015 but it didn’t persuade him to commit to them
Now the Aston Villa star is making his mark in the England team and could play against Ireland when the two sides meet at Wembley on Thursday night
That would have meant a senior debut for a boy only just finding his feet in the men’s game, but the temptation was there.
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill made several trips to Notts County, where Grealish was on loan, only to determine he was not physically ready for the senior stage.
It would perhaps be wrong to look back and criticise O’Neill – some in Ireland do – given qualification for Euro 2016 was his priority, and there is debate as to whether the midfielder would have declined the call-up anyway, like he did in the summer of 2015.
But as England’s new star prepares to face Ireland for the first time on Thursday evening, some do wonder if a little more cunning was needed in securing the future of such an obvious talent.
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny hinted at as much this week when, having been asked about Grealish, he spoke of ‘exceptional’ players accelerating through the age ranks ‘quicker’.
Former Ireland boss Martin O’Neill (left) and his assistant Roy Keane were told by Grealish and his father Kevin that he would be choosing England
Their loss is a gain for England manager Gareth Southgate ahead of the Euro 2020 next year
Grealish’s ascent was quick – he debuted at 14 for the Under 16s and won 19 youth caps — but it was not quick enough.
Speak to those in Ireland – the country of Grealish’s grandparents – and there is almost no ill-feeling towards him, from players or supporters.
There is far more for Declan Rice, who won three caps in friendlies before defecting to England last year.
Rather, with Grealish, there is a sense of loss, of what might have been. As O’Neill himself later conceded, his limited team would have been far better placed to qualify for Russia 2018 aided by Grealish’s creative skills – and he would have been included in the squad for Euro 2016.
Declan Rice won three caps for Ireland in friendly matches before defecting to England
Rice (right) has gone on to establish himself as an important member of England’s midfield
For a long time the youngster’s allegiance dominated press calls with O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane.
Grealish took a break from international football to consider his options but that did not stop the FAI awarding him their young player of the year prize in March 2015.
The subsequent comments of Keane – then Villa assistant and working with Grealish on a daily basis – were hardly seen as helpful.
‘I don’t ask Jack anymore,’ he said. ‘Sometimes it’s respect, you don’t want to pester people but, unfortunately, a lot would be coming from Jack’s dad. Knowing his dad, we could be waiting a bloody long while.’
By then, however, Keane and O’Neill knew which way the flag was blowing. They met with Grealish and his dad, Kevin, at the family home.
Grealish is enjoying an excellent season with Aston Villa, who won 3-0 at Arsenal on Sunday
Grealish pictured in training ahead of England’s game with Ireland, Belgium and Iceland
Even if they did take encouragement from the green-jerseyed snap on the wall, they left in no doubt as to the player’s thinking. He was English and he wasn’t for turning. O’Neill suspected commercial incentives were also at play.
Finally, in September, 2015, the 20-year-old confirmed he was switching nations from Ireland to England. It would, however, take another five years for his Three Lions debut, in which time Ireland played 47 internationals.
In another world, Grealish may well have been winning a 50th cap at Wembley.