Jack Grealish has been playing for Ireland since the age of 14. Although he was born in Solihull, he qualifies to play in the green by virtue of three Ireland-born grandparents. Currently 19-years-old, he has, to date, represented Ireland from under-15 right through to under-21 level. As he has yet to represent Ireland in a competitive senior fixture, he remains entitled under FIFA’s eligibility regulations to switch national affiliation once to England, for whom he is also eligible through birth. Meanwhile, a senior competitive cap in the green jersey would cap-tie him to Ireland. Whilst the Irish senior manager, Martin O’Neill, has met with Grealish to gauge intent, the young Aston Villa player has made it clear that he does not wish to be considered for international selection – neither at under-age nor senior level – at the present moment in time in order to allow him to focus on his club career.
Whilst Grealish has stated his hope to return to the green jersey by September, his father-cum-spokesman, Kevin, has also spoken of his son as having a difficult international decision to make. Rightly or wrongly, it is widely and fearfully assumed in Ireland that the talented youngster is using the present time out to assess his chances of receiving a preferred senior England call-up before making what would be a career-changing decision by irreversibly committing to Ireland. This is in spite of Grealish not having stated any preference for England, however. Shay Given, with whom Grealish plays at Aston Villa, has spoken of his young team-mate’s present state of “confusion“; does Grealish remain with Ireland, for whom he has always played internationally and for whose senior squad he would almost certainly be selected in the now if he was willing, or, does he switch to England, where competition for senior places might be greater, but – let’s be realistic – where the chance of playing at World Cups and European Championships would be enhanced if he was to successfully implant himself in the team and where the potential commercial benefits would also be much more lucrative for him? Having been born in England and raised in a Birmingham household proud of its strong Irish heritage, he understandably shares national sentiment for both camps.
This would not be the first time that chattering Ireland supporters (and I am one myself) have exhibited a very contagious sense of collective insecurity when the commitment of a talented dual-eligible Irish player has found itself under the scrutiny of a speculative Irish media. Before Glasgow-born James McCarthy, qualifying for Ireland via the same rule Grealish does, made his senior competitive debut for Ireland against Macedonia in March of 2011 under Giovanni Trapattoni, there was widespread national (and irrational) fear amongst both casual and dedicated supporters that a player who had proudly played for Ireland since the age of 16 and who had already made his senior debut in a friendly against Brazil a year prior, but who was also yet to be cap-tied, was set to declare for Scotland, the country of his birth. The apprehension was on account of his withdrawal from a number of senior squad selections prior to and including for a Carling Nations Cup game against Wales. Even though McCarthy’s withdrawals were satisfactorily explained to all concerned as being fitness-related or a result of injury, it did not halt uninformed and paranoid imaginations from filling informational gaps with conjecture and presumptions that McCarthy’s attention was focused elsewhere.
Of course, tabloidesque elements in the media – habitually feasting upon smidgens of ambiguity – were more than delighted to exploit any lacking or incomplete information, including apparent disinformation, in the public domain and duly stoked their readers’ worries into a panic. Raising doubts over McCarthy’s commitment might well even have been a means to stir a sensational and unfair impression that there was some sort of falling out between Trapattoni and one of his players or that Trapattoni was somehow at fault for McCarthy’s inaccurately-alleged reservation on account of poor communication; tension, conflict, fear and frenzy are great sellers, after all. The discourteous media melodrama was in spite of McCarthy having resolutely stood by his 2007 decision to play for Ireland whilst enduring torrents of sectarian abuse from sections of Scottish crowds resentful of his “misplaced” allegiance during his time playing club football with Hamilton Academical. I wondered in 2011 why we Ireland supporters were so insecure so as to assume that a dual-eligible player, who had been faithfully turning up for us for years, lacked commitment or had been turning up through all that time whilst harbouring a secret and cynical desire to jump ship once push came to shove, irrespective of his numerous public and reassuring utterances on the matter. The question of why exactly such doubt and insecurity can so readily permeate the national psyche is indeed for another debate – perhaps it’s that infamous post-colonial inferiority complex – but the surest way to turn dual-eligible players off the idea of playing for Ireland must certainly be by perennially doubting their words and displays of loyalty.
Admittedly, the ambivalent Grealish has muddied the waters in a way that McCarthy never did, but perhaps we Irish observers are allowing the Anglocentric hype and expectation placed upon the young Aston Villa player of late to influence our thoughts and sense of balance to the point where we straightforwardly assume it must also be affecting Grealish. This would all be in spite of his father having informed us that “nothing has changed“, as far as his his September-return plans are concerned, since his son’s stand-out performance in Aston Villa’s 2-1 FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool on the 19th of April caught the attention of the English media. Grealish has not exactly beckoned England just yet; in fact, he has rejected all their advances to date.
Since his outstanding performance during that game at Wembley, it would, of course, be grossly naïve to completely deny the possibility that having now caught the full attention of the English footballing community might be a game-changer for him. Nevertheless, the situation remains very much within Irish control. Ireland have been happy selecting Grealish over the years in full knowledge of his dual eligibility. There has been no obligation upon us to do so, nor is there an obligation upon us to continue entertaining him if we suspect his interests lie elsewhere.
I personally am not convinced he will make a change of association – it would be quite a U-turn if he did – nor will I resent him for making such a decision if he indeed does. Neither would I blame the FA for chasing an England-eligible player, nor Grealish for accepting what the FAI, too acting in self-interest, have been gladly offering him over the past half a decade. Some supporters and commentators are of the opinion that Grealish is presently stringing the FAI along and suspect he will inevitably disrespect us down the line by opting for the country of his birth if the opportunity presents itself. As stated, however, it is not as if the player-association relationship is a one-way altruistic one without mutual benefit for both parties and from which only Grealish is benefiting or stands to benefit. Let us not pretend that the FAI and Ireland do not stand to gain here too. The FAI, understandably, have been keen not to surrender the possibility of him ultimately committing to us.
Besides, Grealish has already returned something of tangible value to the association by turning up for Ireland to offer his services whenever called upon since aged 14 (his present unavailable status since last October notwithstanding), whilst the FAI are taking the approach that they hope will spawn a reward they feel will be worth all the stress and investment. It is a risk and they have been more than happy to have a gamble. If Ireland are happy simply to be an option instead of forcing the issue, whilst simultaneously persisting with his selection at under-21 level and without any assurance or declaration of long-term commitment, we cannot complain if he accepts such offerings and will ultimately have only ourselves to blame if he does eventually take advantage of the choices open to him and switches to England for senior football. We must accept the ultimate decision if it happens to go against us despite our investment. If he eventually “disrespects” Ireland, it will very much have been because we have put ourselves in a position where that is a distinct possibility. Of course, we Ireland fans should already be very well aware of the right Grealish enjoys under the eligibility regulations in light of ourselves having been in benefit of numerous players who have made the decision to change association from another to the FAI in the recent past.
I can see why the present uncertain state of affairs could be exasperating for some, but that is what placing a wager can entail and if we are indeed being “strung along”, it will be nobody’s fault but our own. Nobody has forced the FAI into this situation, nor are they being compelled to do anything against their will by Grealish. If we, collective Ireland, are being exploited, rather than it being a case of Grealish dictating the game, it is because we are voluntarily allowing ourselves to be. We are allowing the present situation to exist because we very much want to remain an option. It is important that we do not play the victim and shirk or deny responsibility for that over which we have control.
Rather than appeasing Grealish by giving him his time, O’Neill could, if he wanted to, issue the 19-year-old with an ultimatum tomorrow. It would remove the lingering option from the equation and we’d be done with the present state of uncertainty; we would either have a very talented and committed young player on our hands for whom we could make concrete future plans or we would be able to devote our attentions to something more worthwhile as Grealish goes his own way and devotes his own efforts solely to making it with England.
Just to clarify, however, I say all of the above simply to make a point. I am not jumping to any conclusions, nor am I assuming that we are actually being strung along by a cynical upstart; I am simply highlighting that we are more than happy to permit such a situation to be prolonged in hope and on account of our own selfish interests, so we should not pretend we are helpless or powerless to do anything. For what it is worth, I am not suggesting either that issuing Grealish an ultimatum would be the correct or most appropriate way to deal with the player; it would be a rather hard-line approach that could have the undesirable effect of alienating him. I happen to think that the respectful and agreeable manner in which O’Neill has already been dealing with the situation is spot on, for now, and if Grealish eventually decides to go elsewhere, so be it. I will wish him the best for the future.
On the other hand, if he is saying he wants to return to the green by September, I feel it would be reasonable to hold him to his word. He has already broken into the Aston Villa first-team squad as desired since agreeing a new contract and will be 20-years-old by then, having had a year away from international football to come to a decision. If he is not open to a senior Irish call-up come September, my patience may then wear thin if the FAI continue to entertain a player clearly not interested in committal, but I am prepared, out of good, honest faith in the integrity and clarity of the spoken word (rather than complete blind naïvety), to take Grealish at his word for now. I do not think I could defend pandering to a player after they have gone back on their word. I am, of course, well aware that there is a possibility of it happening, as there is with anything, but I would rather not be the one to engage in bad faith first by assuming him to be cynically deceiving us when we simply do not know what he is thinking deep down at the present juncture.
The above piece was also published on Backpage Football.
Post-script added on the 14th of May, 2015: Since writing the above piece, Jack Grealish was offered a place in the Ireland senior squad announced on Tuesday the 12th of May for the upcoming friendly game against England. He declined the invite, however, which has provoked criticism and anger from some Ireland supporters. I fail to understand though why the matter was raised publicly again on Tuesday. It should not be an issue at present and this attempted selection and decline does not really change anything substantively; Grealish remains on his self-imposed international break and had confirmed he hopes to be back in September. That agreement was being respected, or so I understood. If he goes back on his word in September, OK, make an issue of it then, but it should not be an issue right now. Now, he is being accused of “turning his back on Ireland“. Nonsense. He was placed in a situation that was not fully in line with what was agreed previously. If we were going to try and bring him in now and he had indeed responded positively at some point (be that last Monday night or whenever; further details on this below) before changing his mind, this should never have been made known to the media or public by FAI insiders (and certainly not before any official squad announcement was made with, worst of all, Grealish absent from the list). Now, we only look like we have been trying to pressure him, contrary to what was agreed, and he has unfortunately won enemies up and down the country for having done absolutely nothing wrong and simply having stuck to his original word. What were we expecting?
As alluded to above, there has been speculation in the media that Grealish had initially agreed to be in the squad on Monday night, before performing a U-turn after having had a discussion with his club manager, Tim Sherwood, on the Tuesday morning. If this is definitely true and, if true, whether Sherwood’s motive was simply to protect his player from an inevitable media frenzy at an important time for the club (Aston Villa still have to mathematically ensure their Premier League survival) or whether it was to urge his player to hold out for an England call-up instead, we do not yet know. It is entirely possible Sherwood’s motives were simply protective of a Grealish otherwise happy to accept the call-up, which, if that is the case, could mean the player will be more than happy to turn up again in future once his club manager no longer feels he requires protection. The alternative scenario – a much less desirable possibility – would have constituted a rather unprofessional interference by Sherwood and would have conflicted with his already-stated appreciation for what is purely Grealish’s personal choice and no-one else’s, so perhaps it is also the much less likely possibility. We shall see… I just hope the whole affair, along with the needless and completely unconstructive abuse thrown Grealish’s way over the past few days, will not have soured the young player’s fondness for Ireland!