Aston Villa 2 Bolton 0, Villa Park
Watching Jack Grealish in Villa Park is quite something. First, obviously, because you would have to go a long way to find a footballer more loved in his own ground. Every other week, he’s Stan Bowles at Loftus Road, Matt Le Tissier at The Dell.
But also because he’s such a naturally engaging player. Grealish is not traditional in any sense and, as previously under Steve Bruce, Dean Smith allows him to wander the pitch seeking influence. He drops in and out of games, dousing the play with imagination and craft. A sharp turn here, a quick burst away from a defender there. He may not be among the very best players in the country, but so what – here, in this context, he’s enrapturing.
Against Bolton Wanderers on Friday night, it took just four minutes to state his case. Even before he raced onto Tammy Abraham’s cutting through ball, he had knotted up Bolton’s right-side on the near touchline, finding an inch of daylight and bursting into it. Barely a minute later, he was collecting that Abraham pass, gliding past Ben Alnwick and putting Villa his side into the lead.
What Aston Villa actually are is elusive. Bruce has gone, obviously, replaced by the deserving Smith, and the former Brentford head-coach has inherited a highly talented side. In theory, at least. Grealish is Grealish, he’s special. In Abraham, they have a virtual guarantee of goals at this level, and Neil Taylor, James Chester, Axel Tuanzebe and Albert Adomah all have Premier League experience. They also have as deep a bench as a manager could wish for in this division, with one-time wunderkind Anwar El Ghazi in reserve, the balling Yannick Bolasie alongside him, and Ahmed Elmohamady, ghost of top-flight relegations past, too. Yet they remain deep in the midst of a hangover, apparently still sulking over that narrow defeat to Fulham in last season’s playoff final and now mired in the bottom-half of the Championship.
in 2017-18, Grealish was arguably the best player in the division and, while his team probably didn’t, he deserved promotion. Tom Cairney, Ryan Sessegnon and James Maddison all have their claims to that crown, but none of them provided more of a spectacle. Grealish played with swagger last year and now, even within a less functional side, he continues to strut.
When he opened the scoring on Friday, he skipped giddily to the corner flag, sliding on his knees towards his fans. As his teammates drifted back to the halfway line, he lingered alone for a few seconds to bask in whatever it feels like to be a local idol. Maybe he should have gone to Tottenham, he’s certainly good enough, but there’s something magical about seeing a gifted player in his natural habitat and, in those moments, you know why he was happy to stay. Who wouldn’t want that? What fan, what true fan, wouldn’t linger in their own team’s colours and live that dream?
For 25 minutes, he vanished. Then, there he was again, twisting Joe Williams off-balance to one side, then to the next, and then drawing a smart save from Alnwick with a bending shot. Williams took it personally. Twice he would plough through the back of Grealish, each time when he posed no threat. After the first, Williams gave his slick hair a playful ruffle, hoping to draw some of the fire that Fulham saw at Wembley; Grealish shrugged him off and walked away, determining to embarrass his opponent with each touch thereafter.
Hours before this game kicked-off, the revelations about the intended European Super League were published. Reading through Der Spiegel’s exclusive was dispiriting, not least because of how little football actually features in those grand, disgusting plans. That’s the future: revenue, television audiences, and exposure to virgin markets. The sport – the headers, the volleys, the goal-kicks and the throw-ins – is just a mechanism by which money can be extracted. It could be a pyramid fund or a Ponzi scheme, it just happens that this great swindle is based around a game with a ball.
So this was a really welcome antidote. While the outside world was wondering how Manchester United against Barcelona will look when it’s being played on the surface of the moon, Grealish was dancing with the ball, speeding the game up and then slowing it down, bringing fans to their feet and pulses of warmth to a freezing Villa Park.
It’s a very pure sort of image and, as such, he’s very easy to like. In an age of footballing economy, in which every component of a team is cut to the right shape and with a specific function in mind, he’s wonderfully irregular. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, his younger self dribbling across the school and county pitches, leaving other boys hacking at nothing and coaches screaming at him not to take too many touches. Lay it off, give it, etc. Alas, such is the risk-averse nature of the British game. The focus is always on the worst case scenario – the cost of recklessness, not the opportunity which comes with being bold.
— Aston Villa FC (@AVFCOfficial) November 2, 2018
But Grealish is brave. In time and when that Premier League future eventually arrives, he’ll lose some of what he has now. His flair will be interpreted as liability and he’ll be encouraged to look back before he goes forward. What a shame. Until then, there’s no position he won’t attack from, nobody he doesn’t back himself to beat with the ball at his feet. It’s Gascoigne-ish. Not in style, but in that shared sense of conviction and the determination to just play under any circumstances – even when it’s ill advised. Late in the second-half, he collected possession on the far touchline, jaunted between four players and cut-back in-field. Then, as if he’d grown bored, he slowed to a stop and lost the ball. At the level above, it would have drawn an irate bellow from the technical area and maybe even a substitution. Here, it just makes him old fashioned.
But he’s a welcome, relatable anachronism. While the modern expressive player is endowed with tricks and bewildering touches, just a blur of ridiculousness, he carries the ball in a contrastingly simple way. There aren’t any frills, he’s just balance and timing. In fact, drain the colour from this picture, soften the definition, and he could be playing in the 1970s. Socks down, head up, ball completely under his command.
Just before the hour, the game was over as a contest. Grealish flighted a teasing ball to Bolton’s back-post and Chester escaped his marker to head in. Time will tell how much effect Smith is able to have on this side, but at the moment Villa don’t make much sense; they don’t add up to anything like the sum of their parts. Perhaps that accentuates Grealish’s influence. Wherever he wanders, a threat seems to appear. Conversely, wherever he’s not, players tend to get in each other’s way and mis-time what they do.
He was withdrawn in the 90th minute. When the board went up, the entire ground stood to sing and applaud him from the pitch and with him gone the empty blue seats began to appear. It was the traffic, probably, but a fine metaphor all the same. Villa aren’t solely about Grealish and, actually, the club is modernising and maturing off the field, but he remains the main reason to buy a ticket and take a seat.
He’s a wonderful footballer. Not world-class, not one demanding England inclusion, and not a true peer of the holograms glinting in the game’s stratosphere, but someone who everyone here is right to cherish.