The match is gradually slipping away from Aston Villa. Philippe Coutinho’s goal has sapped the fans’ energy and the players can feel it. They look awfully small on the giant Wembley pitch, overawed by the occasion, perhaps; the FA Cup semi-final a bridge too far for a team drunk on the infinite enthusiasm of their manager Tim Sherwood.
That is until Fabian Delph grabs the ball, slaloms past two Liverpool midfielders, and finds Jack Grealish who – anticipating Delph’s movement – is already bursting down the left flank. Grealish is that rare type of player who seems to genuinely glide along the surface of a football pitch, never breaking stride when carrying or releasing the ball, his next move hidden until the last second. He pushes the ball forward and slides it through to Delph with his instep. Delph fires across goal for Christian Benteke, whose side-foot finds the bottom corner.
AS IT HAPPENED: Aston Villa vs Birmingham
READ MORE: Grealish stars as Bruce’s men go second
Nine minutes into the second half Grealish again wafts forward. The fans, restored to full chorus, immediately leave their seats, a Pavlovian response to the sight of Grealish’s foppish hair bouncing up and down as he darts his head left and right. Again he slips the ball through a gap in the Liverpool defence, but this time Delph cuts inside, lashing a shot past Simon Mignolet. Grealish, a local lad, has driven Villa to victory live on terrestrial telly.
Three years have passed since Villa’s cup run hurled Grealish into the spotlight, exposing him to the cruelty of the tabloid press: their demands for England allegiance; their sudden interest in Birmingham nightclubs. The 19-year-old duly crumbled, as did the club. April 2015 was the last time Villa fans were hopeful for the future, and in retrospect the FA Cup final three weeks later, a 4-0 defeat to Arsenal, sounded the death knell for a club gutted by mismanagement – but briefly deluded by a giddy Sherwood surge.
Cut to February 2018 and things are looking a little bit brighter again. Following a run of seven straight victories in the Championship the clouds over Villa Park are finally lifting, with Grealish, a forgotten man these days, inevitably right at the heart of Villa’s revival.
Increasingly, modern footballers need a clear project around which to unify. The prevalence of short-term managerial cycles demands the head coach offers the players a sense of purpose amid the chaos. Narrative clarity is essential in the age of Sky Sports plot arcs that oscillate within a binary code of success and crisis. After years of floundering Villa’s 2-0 victory over Birmingham City on Sunday made it clear Jack Grealish is just such a focal point – the player around which Villa can build an identity under Steve Bruce.
His performance in the second city derby was the culmination of two months of steady improvement from the 22-year-old, who has scored or created four goals in his last six matches in claret and blue. Grealish’s swagger, his ability to conjure pockets of space from a vacuum, has returned, but crucially Villa’s number ten has also added an edge to his game – a sense of grit and purpose chiselled from two gruelling years of Championship football.
Grealish slinked through the Birmingham midfield with the arrogance of a footballer clearly too good for this level, slicing the visitors open with those deft David Silva-esque passes. But equally impressive was his grasp of the finer rhythms of this game; a certain ruggedness in the tight spaces, a grappling for supremacy in the finer margins of a thunderous derby. He tackled back expertly, he dived into scraps when necessary, he hoofed clear when the time was right.
Grealish was hacked down on six occasions. Every time he got straight back up and went again, taunting the City players with those rolled-down socks and stunted shin pads, awakening the Holte End when nerves had silenced them. It was a performance of real maturity and arrogance, the sort that breathes confidence in the rest of the team.
An international call-up can’t be far away. It’s been a while since an England manager last plucked someone from the lower leagues, but then again Grealish really shouldn’t be playing below Premier League level. Plus there is an historic precedent to suggest lower-league employment shouldn’t be a barrier to England caps. Steven Bull famously played for England at the 1990 World Cup despite spending his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Trevor Brooking, Paul Merson, and Kenny Sansom – with 154 caps between them – have all played for England from the second tier.
The most recent example is Wilfried Zaha, who came off the bench to make his England debut four days after his 20th birthday having impressed for Crystal Palace in the Championship. Zaha’s subsequent success in the Premier League (how the FA must regret allowing him to defect to Ivory Coast during his ill-fated spell at Man Utd) suggests Villa’s current status would not prevent Grealish from excelling on the international scene. England have two friendlies in late March against the Netherlands and Italy, providing Gareth Southgate with a risk-free opportunity to see if the 22-year-old can fill a hole in his squad. Dele Alli and Adam Lallana are the only number tens currently in contention. Both lack flair in comparison to Grealish.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, are still a long way away from returning to the Premier League, let alone rekindling the optimism felt inside Wembley when Grealish and Delph steamrollered a Liverpool midfield containing Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, and Philippe Coutinho. But Grealish 2.0 – a more cultured, more controlled footballer at the heart of the Villa midfield – is just the figurehead they need. After nearly three years in the wilderness a bright future, for club and country, is back on the cards.