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Jack Grealish Exclusive: Aston Villa ace outlines his ambitions for club and country

His recent performances might have been termed out of this world, yet Jack Grealish remains reassuringly down to earth.

Jack Grealish of Aston Villa. (AMA)
Jack Grealish of Aston Villa. (AMA)

With Villa enjoying their best season for more than a decade, their captain is on course to record one of the finest campaigns by any player in club history.

Former Villa talisman-turned-pundit Paul Merson this week described Grealish's displays as currently being “on another planet” while Match of the Day host Gary Lineker touted the 25-year-old as a potential Player of the Year candidate. No Villa player has claimed that prize since Paul McGrath in 1993.

Grealish takes pleasure in the praise but never lets it become a distraction. For one thing, he believes he is still some way short of his peak.

“I still think there is so much more to come from me and that is not being big-headed either," he says.

“It is just having confidence in my own ability. I think everyone I have worked with will say how confident I am as a person and a player in my own ability.

“I truly believe in myself and think I have so much more to give. I have big aims for this season.

“Of course it is nice to hear those things, particularly from people like Paul Merson and Gary Lineker.

“But you never want to listen to it too much, to the point it starts to affect you.

Aston Villa's Jack Grealish celebrates

“You just have to take it, move on and then try to do more to earn even more praise. That is what I try to do. I know what I can give. I know what I can do as a player."

Still, the statistics make for undeniably impressive reading. In Villa’s first 19 Premier League matches, Grealish has been responsible for either scoring or setting-up 15 goals. No player in the league has created more chances.

His tally of nine assists, meanwhile, is already the fifth highest of any Villa player for an entire top flight season since 1992.

That latter number is particularly pleasing for Grealish, who has placed particular focus on improving his final ball.

“Half of it is watching,” he explains. “You watch players like Kevin De Bruyne and when he gets into the final third, what he does.

“You need to mix it up, sometimes dink to the back stick, sometimes go underneath the defence.

“You need to mix it up as much as possible. That is what I have been doing in training and it has paid off in the matches.”

Villa boss Dean Smith has spoken previously of Grealish’s insatiable hunger to learn and improve. Such desire recently showed itself as frustration when he took umbrage at being withdrawn late in a 2-0 win over Newcastle.

“I spoke to the manager about that. I was devastated,” he says. "I hadn’t come off for 42 games. I was desperate to stay on.

“I always want to be on the pitch, no matter how tired I am or how tired the manager thinks I am. I think that will stay with me.

“Everyone knows I like a night out. I’m a normal kid and I would never pretend otherwise.

“But I just love football. I love coming here every day and training. I love having a ball at my feet. I’ve been blessed with talent and I’m determined to make the most of it.

Aston Villa's Jack Grealish celebrates

“I don’t think I will ever lose this hunger. There is nothing I love doing more than entertaining people.”

Numbers alone can never fully emphasise Grealish’s importance to this emerging Villa team, both as the conductor of their exciting attack and an increasingly effective leader.

“He’s pushing the other players now, that’s the pleasing thing,” says Smith, who a little under two years ago made the rather inspired decision to hand Grealish the captaincy, at a point when the club sat mid-table in the Championship.

Grealish cites assistant boss John Terry, who captained Chelsea to five Premier League titles, as a key source of advice when developing his leadership skills.

“You’ve got to (push people) as captain, especially at a club as big as Villa,” says Grealish.

“We demand a lot from each other, as players. We are a young team and that is what I have tried to build on over the past year, the way I am off the pitch, being that leadership figure.”

Grealish is quick to praise the supporting cast when listing reasons for his own improvement and the summer acquisitions of Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traore and Ross Barkley which have helped transform Villa from relegation strugglers to contenders in the top half of the table.

“I have been blessed by the club bringing these players in, the likes of Ollie, Ross, Bertrand, all these attacking players,” he explains.

“Now it is not a case (for opponents) of let’s look after Jack. Now we’ve got all these other attacking players as well and it frees me up a bit. I feel that is why I’ve got more goals and more assists.”

Another key development in recent months has been his breakthrough into the England squad last autumn. After a longer wait than many anticipated, Grealish now has five international caps and makes no secret winning a place in Gareth Southgate’s European Championships squad is his primary aim over the rest of the season.

“The one thing I am just praying to God for is I get in that squad,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed every minute (with England) so far.

England's Jack Grealish

“It’s definitely helped bring my game on. Watching those players train and taking little bits from their game.

“Sometimes it is just speaking to them. I remember one night in Belgium I sat with Jordan Henderson for two hours and we chatted about everything.

“It is nice to speak to these people about how they see the game, how they train at different clubs, different cultures.

“You learn stuff from all these guys and I feel that is one thing which has helped me massively.

“As soon as you start playing for the national team, you up your own game.

“Hopefully there is more to come but as I’ve said to a lot of people, there is so much talent in the England team in my position. I have to keep doing what I have been doing, keep trying to impress the manager and fingers crossed.”

If Grealish can maintain his current form it will only bring good things for Villa, who have hit the midway point of their season firmly in the mix for a top-six finish, with back-to-back home matches against West Ham tonight and Arsenal on Saturday offering the chance to make further progress.

Grealish, who scored the goal which kept Villa in the top flight on the final day at the London Stadium last season, admits the turnaround has gone some way beyond even the expectations which, after several weeks of speculation, saw him sign a new five-year deal with his boyhood club last September.

“I knew the talent we had,” he says. "But you look at the year before when we also brought in a lot of talent and it does not always click straight away.

Aston Villa's Jack Grealish celebrates scoring against West Ham.

“I knew we wouldn’t be down there battling relegation. But I would have thought we might be 11th, 12th or 13th, somewhere like that. To be where we are with games in hand is obviously massive.

“The recruitment over the summer was brilliant and they brought in brilliant players who have all hit the ground running straight away.

“Hopefully Morgan Sanson (who signed in January from Marseille) can do the same and add that extra bit of bite to midfield.

“One of the main things you need if you are fighting at the top is squad depth. I feel we have that now.”

There is of course a sad irony about one of the most exciting Villa teams for decades and Grealish, the great entertainer, currently performing to empty stands.

On February 16 it will be a year since Villa Park last welcomed supporters.

“There is nothing better than coming to Villa Park when it is packed,” he says. “I have told a lot of the lads, Cashy, Ollie (Watkins) and Ross (Barkley): ‘Just you wait till you see it full’.

“At the start of the season we all hoped by now we would have the fans in but it wasn’t meant to be.

“Hopefully they can come back as soon as possible and there would be no better present than getting them into Europe so they can join us on those tours next year.

“That is what we have to aim for and with the players we have got, I feel we can definitely do it.”

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