Aston Villa skipper Jack Grealish: I'll miss the abuse from opposing fans when the Premier League resumes
Jack Grealish credits Dean Smith with helping take his game to the next level and describes the Villa boss as a father figure.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover the past few days have seen Grealish do whatever he can to help his manager through a time of personal tragedy.
The death of Smith’s father Ron last week at the age of 79, after contracting coronavirus, was felt keenly by his players and particularly the skipper.
Ron, a lifelong Villa supporter who passed on his love for the club to his son, had battled dementia for several years and been living in a care home.
“I used to ask the manager every day how his dad was getting on,” says Grealish. “When the news came he had died it was devastating for him and his family. As players we have tried to be there for him and to help him.
“One good thing about football when you are having a problem away off the pitch, when you do come into training or play a match, it takes your mind off everything else at home. It certainly does for me.
“That’s what we tried to do for the manager and I’m sure we all want to avoid relegation even more now, for the Smith family.
“The manager has been a massive influence on me. I could never give him enough credit.
“I see him as like a father figure and I can go and speak to him about anything, on or off the field. I have played the best football of my career since he arrived.”
The Grealish-Smith partnership which began in October 2018 when the latter arrived at Villa Park has been hugely beneficial for both men and most importantly the club.
Yet the challenge facing them now is arguably the toughest so far, as they look to plot Villa’s path to safety in a season which will resume, after a three-month suspension, with the team two points and places deep in the relegation zone.
On a personal level, the restart offers Grealish the chance to complete what was already the best campaign of his career to date. It also represents a chance to resume making headlines for the right reasons, after an indiscretion early in the pandemic damaged his reputation.
The 24-year-old broke lockdown just hours after urging people to stay at home, his transgression exposed when photos appeared online of him standing next to his Range Rover, which had collided with parked cars.
Grealish, who issued a swift public apology, was fined two weeks' wages - a sum of around £150,000 - which was donated University Hospitals Charity. In the following weeks he raised more than £55,000 for NHS Charities Together by raffling off the shirt he wore when scoring the winning goal in last season’s derby win at Blues.
“I knew straight away that I had to come out and apologise. I didn’t want to hide behind a club statement,” he says.
“I am old enough now and mature enough to know that I’d done wrong. Since then I have tried to do certain bits of charity work to raise money for the NHS.
“I know I am a footballer but I’m still human and we all make mistakes and straight away, I knew I’d made a mistake.
“I’m also a role model as well to a lot of people out there especially young children who might look up to me.”
Grealish, who has never lost his childlike love for football, claims to have missed the game “a silly amount” during the shutdown.
But while excited by its impending return, he acknowledges the absence of supporters from matches is a blow.
Neither is it just the adulation of his own supporters Grealish, often a prime target for away fans, is going to miss.
“I love all that,” he says. “I love when people are on my back and targeting me.
I always remember when I was a kid - and I am not saying I am anywhere near his level - but Cristiano Ronaldo used to come to Villa and the fans used to absolutely cane him.
“He used to thrive off it and that is what I try to do. I try to thrive off the hatred from the fans.”
Grealish, however, expresses indifference over proposals to pump crowd noise into matches.
“I would be fine with it,” he says. “But if it came down to a vote I would probably let my team-mates choose because it would not really bother me whether there was crowd noise or not.
“I have just been raring to go and desperate to get back since we have been told we can.”
Whether the break has worked to Villa’s advantage is difficult to ascertain. Smith’s team play six of their remaining matches at home but not have the backing of their fans.
Their form heading into the shutdown, on the other hand, was the worst in the division and they have the bonus of now being able to call on a fully fit John McGinn.
Grealish believes the return of the Scot, who is now fully recovered from a fractured ankle sustained in December, will be a huge boost for a fixture list which includes meetings with six of the current top 10, including champions-elect Liverpool.
Villa are scheduled to get the ball rolling on the season’s return when they host Sheffield United a fortnight today.
“It is probably going to be a tough run-in,” says Grealish. “But there are also teams who have not got much to play for we are playing against so you can look at it two different ways.
“I am confident we will come back and play to the best of our abilities. We are looking fit as a team, probably fitter than we were at this stage in pre-season. We still have another two weeks and hopefully we can get fitter and more prepared than ever.
“I would probably say it is a disadvantage, if I am honest, only because of how much we have thrived on the home games this year.
“We have won a lot more at home than we have away. We had six games remaining at home. We still have a game in hand and if we win the game in hand we are out of the relegation zone. It is not something we are going to sit back and moan about. It is still in our hands.
“If we win our game in hand we are out of the bottom three and ready to go for the last nine games. We can’t moan about the fact we might have had the fans there. We will just take it as it is because we are just delighted to be getting back.”
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