Jack Grealish Exclusive: Aston Villa ace opens up on his goalscoring addiction, England hopes and why he'll never get caught up in the hype
Jack Grealish has never had so many nice things said or written about him as right now.
Yet, as he stands on the cusp of potentially the biggest few months of his career to date, you needn’t worry about Villa’s captain ever getting carried away by the hype.
“Of course it’s nice,” he says, sitting down in a corner of the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground. “Who doesn’t like to be talked about in a nice way? But, to be honest, I try and take everything with a pinch of salt.
“I had it all five years ago when I broke through and I was getting talked about a lot. I was 19 years old, going online reading about myself and I couldn’t believe it. I was in the papers all the time and they were asking: ‘Is this the new big thing?’
“Then just one thing goes wrong and it all comes down on you like a ton of bricks. It is nice to read and nice to listen to, but I don’t let it get to me too much, because I know how quickly it can change.”
Though experience might tell him to be cautious, there is no question the past few months have seen Grealish establish himself as the type of top level talent many predicted when he famously first burst on to the scene in Villa’s FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool in April 2015.
The road since then has not always been smooth. Just a year on from that Liverpool game, Grealish was left feeling, in his words, like ‘the worst footballer in the world’ as Villa hurtled towards relegation from the Premier League.
There were well-publicised off-field indiscretions. There were also some unfortunate, freak injuries to hamper his progress.
But those setbacks have also turned Grealish into the kind of character he is today, one who is comfortable in the spotlight, confident – yet never cocky – in his ability and unfazed by the size of his responsibility at Villa, his boyhood club. Even the bad times turned out to be worth it.
“Everything that has happened in my life, I would not change,” he says. “That is the God’s honest truth.
“You know when bad stuff happens in your life and you think: ‘I wish that didn’t happen’.
“But looking back on it now, I would want everything to stay the same.
“I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, and everything that has happened has helped me become the man I am today. I honestly would not change the past.”
The present is an exciting and happy place for Grealish, who is enjoying the best season of his career and will next weekend lead Villa out at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final – the club’s first major final for five years.
Next month, meanwhile, the 24-year-old hopes to fulfil another dream by receiving a first senior England call-up.
Though the decision ultimately rests with Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate, it is debatable whether Grealish could have made a stronger case for selection.
No English player in the Premier League has created more chances this season, while his tally of seven top-flight goals is more than he has scored in any previous campaign. Since October, he has not gone more than two matches without creating a goal, or netting one himself.
“It is like an addiction,” says Grealish of his goalscoring prowess. “When you score, you want to score again and again.”
He has never been afraid to talk of his England ambitions since choosing to represent the country of his birth over the Republic of Ireland four years ago.
There has never, however, been quite the same clamour from elsewhere for his inclusion. Jermaine Jenas, the BBC pundit, last week claimed it would be ‘embarrassing’ if Grealish were not included in the squad for upcoming international friendlies against Italy and Denmark.
Grealish himself remains hopeful and acknowledges his current form is the best of his career. But he also delivers a clear message that for all his recent success, he does not believe he is yet anywhere near his peak.
“I can’t help but think of playing for England because that is what I want to do,” he says. “I hope I have done enough (to get a call-up) but I also think I can perform better and that is the God’s honest truth.
“People on the outside might say I am doing well, but I know for a fact I can do better and score more goals and get more assists.”
Despite recently flourishing in an attacking, wide role for Villa, he believes his best position is still in midfield, adding: “What will be hard at the moment is with the position I am playing in at the moment, people would probably say I am playing as a winger.
“If you look at England’s wingers, I doubt I would have much of a chance of starting in front of Sterling, Sancho and Rashford, who are all unbelievable players!
“I’ve always said my favourite position would be playing in midfield. That is where I would love to play for England.
“It is where I would want to play for Villa, but it just so happens at the moment I am playing well in the position I am in and it is better for the team.
“If I was fortunate enough to get a call-up, the position I would want to play is in midfield.”
It is a typically honest response from a player who never deals in stock answers.
“I just speak what is on my mind and tell the truth. I am not going to tell lies or tell people what they want to hear,” says Grealish, who is equally forthright when it comes to discussing Villa’s current position in the Premier League and his conviction they can beat the drop and avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Boss Dean Smith has described the run-in as akin to ‘12 cup finals’ and today’s trip to face a Southampton team who are themselves not out of danger ranks among the biggest. Grealish is the only remaining senior player from the squad relegated four years ago, but sees few similarities between then and now.
Several players who struggled in Villa’s 2015/16 team, most notably Jordan Veretout, Idrissa Gana and Adama Traore, have since gone on to flourish elsewhere and Grealish believes last summer’s much-publicised £127million squad rebuild will prove to have been more than shrewd business in time.
“Our team this year is a lot better – we have a lot more team spirit and I think it shows because we are not sitting bottom of the table like we were back in 2016,” he said. “The change needed to happen (last summer) and the club spent a lot of money, like they needed to.
“But I feel the players who were brought in have all been good. Sometimes you need time to adapt to English football.
“I know people say: ‘They cost this much, they should be able to walk in and play’.
“But it does not work like that. You look at some of the players who were in our relegation team who are all flying now. Fingers crossed we end the season strongly and go again next term.”
Villa head to St Mary’s Stadium sat just a place and a point above the drop zone, aiming to bounce back from last week’s last-gasp defeat to Tottenham.
It was far from the first time Smith’s team have failed to take full reward from a positive performance and there is an acknowledgement they have too often been guilty of letting points slip away.
“I think we should be further away from the relegation zone,” says Grealish. “But I don’t feel we can be too disheartened with where we are.
“I think sometimes people can make things out to be worse than they actually are.
“If you look at the team, I think we are playing well at the moment, performing well and in a cup final. We’ve got John McGinn to come back next month.
“We have a lot of positives to look forward to. Looking at Southampton, I think we probably owe them a bit of revenge because they gave us a right good going over at our place and beat us 3-1. I think we owe them a bit of revenge. We will be going in with our heads held high.”
There is almost a sense Villa have come too far to fail now. After all, it is only a year since they sat mid-table in the Championship. It was Grealish’s return from a three-month injury lay-off which helped spark the record-breaking 10-match run to power the club to promotion through the play-offs.
That return also coincided with him being given the captain’s armband – a decision which, while perhaps questioned by some at the time, is now regarded as a masterstroke of man-management by Smith.
Grealish admits the extra responsibility has also encouraged him to become more of a leader.
His maturity, meanwhile, was witnessed last week when he could be seen offering words of encouragement to Bjorn Engels after the Belgian defender’s error had allowed Son Heung-min to score Tottenham’s late winner.
“I could see how much it had affected him, like it would anyone,” says Grealish. “He was devastated on the pitch and upset after as well. I just told him to keep his head up.
“If I was in his position, I would have been the same because you think: ‘I have just lost the game’.
“But he’d also scored the goal which got us back into the game and I wanted to give him words of encouragement.
“The captaincy has changed my approach a little bit. Through my whole life I have always been laid back.
“It’s little stuff, like when we were going to do warm-ups I would always be the one at the end, just jogging over last. Now because I’m captain I am the one at the front leading it, trying to get everyone motivated. That is probably the only way it has changed me. It is off the pitch more than anything else. I try to be more of a leader.”
Grealish has also been integral to the connection between team and supporters, cited regularly by Smith as key to the club’s rise.
Indeed, if you want an insight into his true character away from the public image, it can typically be seen a couple of hours after every home match by the gates of the players’ car park, where Grealish meets fans and is generous with his time.
“I’ll go up into the box after the game and my dad will be there with about 50 programmes to sign for the kids outside,” he says. “That is just the way my family are. They are nice and generous people.
“Being a local lad coming up through the ranks I have been the one on the other side of the gate, waiting for the players. I’ve been there and I know how much it means. It is important that we as players are role models and it is important we give the fans our time.
“A lot of the lads do it anyway, but the manager tells us as well. He is a Villa fan himself and has been in the same situation I have. We were both young and we adored Villa players. He tells us to make sure we speak to the fans because it is important. The club wouldn’t be much without fans.”
Those same fans are now looking for Grealish to lead the charge through what could be a momentous few months for both club and player. It is a challenge he is only too happy to accept.
“Sometimes I think the team look to me, not rely on me as such, but they do look to me if they need a goal and I love that,” he says. “It is not a burden, not one bit. No matter how good or bad I am playing, I will always want the ball, in whatever situation. I thrive off that and fortunately I have been doing that recently.
“I don’t think about negative stuff. I don’t think about relegation and I don’t think we are going to get relegated. I want to play for England and I want to lift a trophy for Aston Villa – those are the two things I have got on my mind.”