Jack Grealish exclusive: 'It's been harder than I expected at City – but it's nice being a £100m player'

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  • Aston Villa
    Aston Villa
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  • Manchester City
    Manchester City
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  • Jack Grealish
    Jack Grealish
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Jack Grealish exclusive interview: 'It's been harder than I expected at Manchester City - but it's nice being a £100m player'
Jack Grealish exclusive interview: 'It's been harder than I expected at Manchester City - but it's nice being a £100m player'

There are two versions of Jack Grealish. The first one you probably know already - the £100 million Manchester City footballer, a poster boy for England’s new golden generation of talent and a man who inspires such devotion you can buy a calendar which features nothing but pictures of his calves.

Then there is the other Grealish - the bashful kid from Solihull devoted to his family, and still so gripped by self-doubt that he recently turned down an invitation to watch his beloved Aston Villa, for fear of the reception he would receive from his former fans.

On Wednesday, he really will be back at his old club, with City, and it is this second version of Jack Grealish - the thoughtful, caring one - who is talking Telegraph Sport through his tumult of emotions in his first newspaper interview since his transfer.

“I knew some people would be unhappy when I left, and I can see why some were like that, but I gave my all for the club every single year I was there. If I score, I’m not going to be celebrating,” he says. “At the end of the day I’m Jack Grealish from Solihull who loves the Villa. That will never change - I’ve had a season ticket since I was four and been a fan my whole life.

“I was so close to coming to the West Ham game [in October], as we’d played on Saturday against Palace. I was invited to sit with Christian [Purslow, Villa’s chief executive] but I wasn’t actually sure of the reception I was going to get so I didn’t go.

“Fingers crossed it will be a good one on Wednesday. I’ll clap all four sides of the ground no matter what. If I get booed it will be a bit awkward!”

Grealish’s return to the club where he spent seven years in the first team, and 13 in the academy before that, will be a highly-charged evening for him and his Villa-supporting family, nearly four months after that record-breaking move to the Premier League champions.

He became the most expensive footballer in British football history when City triggered the £100million release clause inserted into his contract and has no regrets over moving. City are in the thick of the Premier League title race and have dazzled in the Champions League, with Grealish scoring on his European debut against RB Leipzig.

Grealish scores against RB Leipzig in September - Getty Images
Grealish scores against RB Leipzig in September - Getty Images
City won the match 6-3 - Getty Images
City won the match 6-3 - Getty Images

Yet those ties to Villa are not easily broken and he is still clearly moved when he reflects on the day he had to say his goodbyes.

“You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to leave,” he says. “I went for a run in the morning, a load of people took photographs of me and it was all on social [media] that I was staying.

“I came back and had to address all the players and staff. There were about 70 people there. I spoke for about a minute-and-a-half, then I had to stop because I had a lump in my throat and was crying.

“I was a bit surprised by some of the backlash when I left. I’d never want a toxic relationship with anyone there. I owe everything to them and I wouldn’t be at City without Villa.”

Grealish could easily have left long before City came calling. Tottenham Hotspur wanted him in the summer of 2018, and it was only the intervention of Villa’s new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens which blocked the deal at the 11th hour.

Last year, he was targeted by Manchester United, under their former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

“I was really close to going, but nothing happened in the end,” he says. “We played United in a pre-season game on Saturday and I wasn’t supposed to play in a cup game at Burton. But after the United game I said to Purslow and my agent [David Manasseh]‘if I’m not leaving, I’ll sign my new contract’.

“I went in with my dog on Tuesday morning, signed the deal, and played later that day. We all agreed on the clause and if any team hit that, it’s a win-win because it means I’ve had an unbelievable season and Villa got £100 million.”

Grealish came close to leaving Villa the summer before his move, but signed a contract that included a £100m release clause - Getty Images
Grealish came close to leaving Villa the summer before his move, but signed a contract that included a £100m release clause - Getty Images

Grealish is still in regular contact with many of his old Villa team-mates, and is still part of a WhatsApp group with his close friend John McGinn, Matt Targett and Matty Cash, who recently picked Grealish’s brain over which vet should treat his pet dog.

Grealish’s association with local charities remains strong. He recently donated 300 balls to Birmingham Childrens’ Hospital, while 30 tickets have also been offered to Acorns Children’s Hospice for the reverse fixture at City on the final day of the season. Acorns ambassador and Villa fan Moin Younis, who was diagnosed with severe epidermolysis bullosa, is booked in for a box at the Etihad Stadium for that game.

Such are the ties that he hopes, one day, to return. “It’s a club that is so close to my heart and I definitely hope to go back there,” he said. “That’s always been in my mind. Ashley Young has done it and I want to do the same, 100 per cent.”

Like Young, and others including Gareth Barry and James Milner before him, Grealish’s time with Villa did have to end.

Their progress over the past three years from promotion to top-flight stability has been impressive, with Grealish - the local boy made good - at the forefront. But as he approached 26, and his peak years, the offer from City simply could not be turned down - not least because he craved the chance to test himself in European football.

“You only get one shot at your career and it just flies by,” he says. “I feel Villa are going towards that [Europe] but I just didn’t know how long it was going to take for us. If I hadn’t come here, I would have regretted it forever. I remember hearing Michael Owen say the same about Real Madrid.

“You look at most of my England team-mates - I was probably one of the last to play [in the] Champions League. You could probably count two or three who haven’t, such as Kalvin Phillips or Sam Johnstone.

“I’ve played four times in it now and loved every moment. It’s completely different to the Premier League, a completely different standard and way of playing.

“It’s the one we all want to win. The manager has come here and won everything else, we’re all desperate to win it and I’ve come here to try and help them.”

Grealish has loved his time in Manchester, but admits acclimatising has taken time: while he was front and centre of most of Villa’s attacking play, at City he is simply one of a stellar cast list, who tend to share the glory around.

“I’ve got so much more to give,” he said. “I’ve found it a lot more difficult than I thought I would, adapting to a different manager and team-mates. At first I thought I’d have more of the ball, get more assists and goals but it doesn’t work like that at all. I’ve had nowhere near as much of the ball as I used to get at Villa.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve struggled, but I found it hard to get used to at the start. I’ve not had the assists and goals I got last season, but I’m never one to doubt myself.”

And what of the price-tag - has being a £100million player fazed him? “I couldn’t care less about that,” he insisted. “There’s a spotlight on you but, if anything, it’s a nice thing to have as the first British £100million player.”

If Grealish does ever have a flutter of self-doubt, he need only look around the City dressing room at team-mates such as Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and the outstanding Joao Cancelo to realise that the first season under Guardiola can be a slow-burner. They have all flourished after modifying their game under the City manager, whose standards remain dizzyingly high.

“Some games this season he’s literally won on his own, from stuff he’s got us to do on the training pitch, with little tactics or tweaks. He’s an unbelievable manager and obsessed with football,” says Grealish. “You don’t see much of him in the building, but we see him on the pitches and in meetings. He has a lot of people working with him but 99 per cent of it comes from him.

“Every game we have a different way of setting up and it helps us so much.

“It’s weird because I’ve always classed myself as an off-the-cuff player. Last season I was playing left-wing and Dean Smith would say ‘if you feel like it’s right to go inside, I trust you and go and do it’.

“Here, it’s more structured and completely different. That is what I mean about adapting. There’s lots of meetings and a lot to get used to.”

Grealish is already a popular addition to the City squad, and he points to the assistance of England team-mates Phil Foden (“He’ll go down as one of the greatest English players”), Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and John Stones for helping him settle in.

He has also fulfilled an ambition of playing alongside his idol Kevin De Bruyne, who is also expected to return soon after contracting Covid-19. There is one City player, however, who has taken Grealish’s breath away.

“Joao [Cancelo] is unreal! I can’t tell you how good he is, honestly one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” he says, laughing. “He’s loud, and a funny guy. He doesn’t speak much English but I’ve got a good connection with him.

“In the first season he struggled a bit, but this season he’s been so good. So has ‘Walks’ [Walker] - he’s different to Joao, as he’s more of a defender who will give it to the players who can hurt you. But he was amazing against PSG last week - Neymar and Mbappe couldn’t get past him.”

Joao Cancelo has been Grealish's standout player at City - Getty Images
Joao Cancelo has been Grealish's standout player at City - Getty Images

And so back to Villa, and the stadium Grealish has called home for so much of his life. It may only be four months since he moved up the M6, but much has changed at his old club, notably the manager. For all the excitement Grealish feels at his impending reunion with his old team-mates, the fact that Dean Smith will not be there for a quick handshake and hello is perhaps his only regret.

“I was devastated to see Dean go. I FaceTimed him straight away after the news and spoke to him for about 20 minutes,” he says. “I was so happy to see him go straight back in at Norwich. I actually watched his first Norwich game on a stream, with the Villa game on at the same time.

“He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever come across. My family absolutely loves his family to bits.

“The day I left Villa, after I spoke to the staff, I shook everyone’s hand. But I gave the gaffer a big hug.”

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