Jack Grealish has achieved the dream that few others do in the footballing world – to play for the club he supported as a boy. Not only that, but to do it both in the Premier League and at Wembley in an FA Cup Semi Final and Final. Talent Ain’t Enough fired some quickfire questions at the England Under-21 international to pick his brains on his footballing background and the secrets behind his success.
What is your earliest memory of playing football?
I think that is when I was about 10, playing for Villa. There was a particular game as well. We beat Blues 2-1 at Bodymoor Heath, and I scored the first goal. That is the first thing in football I can remember.
Did you have a role model when you were growing up?
When I was young I looked up to a few Villa players, like Juan Pablo Angel and Gabby Agbonlahor. Then when I was about 14 or 15 it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo. I would look at how young he was when he went to Manchester United, and then over the years how hard he must have worked in the gym and on the training pitch to stay at the top of the game. He has shown some incredible dedication.
What do you think stood you apart from so many others who also wanted to become a professional footballer?
I think it is the support I have had from my family. They have always been right behind me and pushing me in my dream to become a footballer. Since I was young I have always worked hard and since I was six or seven I have wanted to be a footballer. That was always my dream and I worked hard towards it and thankfully I have made it in terms of becoming a professional.
What sacrifices have you had to make along the way?
It is the best job but you do have to make a lot of sacrifices. You see your friends going out and staying out late but you have commitments to be training and so on. Or having an early night because you have got a game the next day. Commitment is massive in football in this day and age.
Is there a particular time when you thought that you were definitely going to be able to make the grade?
There was a time when I was an Under-16 and I was playing for the Villa Under-18s and Alex McLeish came to watch one of the games. He was the Villa manager at the time and came to watch the Under-18s game against Crystal Palace. I scored one goal and set up another in that game and he told the Under-18s manager that he had been really impressed with me. A week later I was on the bench for the first team against Chelsea! At the age of 16! I was proud enough to be playing for the Under-18s so to then on the bench against a Chelsea team featuring players like Terry, Lampard and Torres was something else! It was surreal. I remember walking out of the tunnel and seeing all those players – it was unbelievable. At half time I was warming up and the assistant manager was telling me to make sure I stayed warm and was ready. My heart was beating a little bit faster at that point – although I didn’t come on in the end.
What did you learn from your loan spell with Notts County?
That helped me so much. I think I would say to young players that instead of playing Under-18s or Under-23s all the time, if you feel you are good enough both technically and can handle it physically then go out on loan. Playing against men week-in week-out and training with those guys in League One and League Two who are fighting for everything….that experience certainly helped me get to where I am today. When I was on loan it was a relegation battle all the way through the season. The consequences of relegation can be massive for a player and towards the end of the season you could sense that at Notts County. It was hard to deal with a big learning process for me and fortunately, at the end of it all, we did stay up.
Is there a player you really feel you have learned a lot from during your career so far?
From breaking into the first team at Villa I would say Fabian Delph. At that time he was the captain and the main guy at Villa. I think a lot of the lads looked up to him at the time. When I first moved into the first team dressing room and started playing a bit more he was the one who put his arm around me and helped me. His commitment was second to none on and off the field. Especially off the field – he would be first into the training ground and last to leave. Always in the gym. I think that commitment has helped him get to where he is today.
Who is the best athlete you have played with?
That would have to be Delphy again! He worked so hard physically on his body and it all paid off. He was always working so hard trying to improve himself. I saw an interview a while back with David Silva from Manchester City, asking him which player worked the hardest. Even he said Delphy, and you can imagine all the players Silva has played alongside, with Spain, Manchester City and everywhere else.
Who is the best athlete you have played against?
Yaya Toure. I remember in my debut for Villa, away at Manchester City, he got the ball and just ran almost the length of the pitch, past all of us! And stuck it away. I had just come off the bench towards the end, and he scored that goal to make it 4-0. He was so strong – it was like he was just saying ‘move’ to all of us!
How important is it to be a good athlete – as well as having the technical ability – in the Premier League?
I think the Premier League has changed a lot from how it was years ago. I’m not saying you didn’t have to be an athlete in the past but now I think you have to have so much dedication and commitment to your body and your physical shape. Only then can you perform at your best week-in week-out over such a long and challenging season. It is so much more competitive that your body has to be in the best possible shape it can be.
What work do you do off the pitch that benefits you most in terms of your position?
I think the key for me at the moment is to work on my strength, on being able to hold people off while I am running with the ball. When you are running with the ball it can be easy to get knocked off it and end up off balance. That is what I am trying to work on at the moment. Building up that strength in my upper body.
Who is the best midfielder in the world at the moment?
I’d probably say, technically, Luka Modric. He is just an unbelievable player, the way he performs on the pitch. There are a lot of technically gifted players around at the moment, like Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets. But if I had to choose someone to play alongside, it would definitely be Modric.
Who has been your toughest opponent in terms of the battle on the pitch?
If I am thinking about someone I have struggled against, I would go for Hector Bellerin of Arsenal. In the 2015 FA Cup Final. He is so quick, he must be one of the quickest in the Premier League, and I Just didn’t get a sniff! Playing against him was hard. Every time I got the ball he was onto me in a flash. One or two times I didn’t manage to turn with the ball I didn’t do anything with it because he just got back and tackled me.
Finally Jack, what is the best stadium you have played at?
It has to be Wembley. What a stadium. And I had one of the best days of my life there with the FA Cup semi final against Liverpool. In club football, the Etihad and Manchester City is right up there. The atmosphere when it gets going at the Etihad is electric.
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