15 Feb Football League: Grealish Back to his Best after Bossing Birmingham
Two stunning goals, a seventh win in a row and second place secured — for now.
It was a Second City derby to savour for Aston Villa last week as they beat bitter rivals Birmingham City 2-0. The defining moment of Sunday’s match came after the final whistle, however, as Jack Grealish returned to the pitch to salute the home supporters. Grealish had run the show before he was substituted to a standing ovation in the 84th minute, and it was an iconic scene to see him holding aloft his man of the match award at full-time. The homegrown hero is back.
It has been a difficult journey for Grealish since he broke into the first-team picture to great acclaim in 2014/15. He thrived under Tim Sherwood’s management as Villa battled their way to Premier League survival, and starred in a 2-1 FA Cup semi-final victory over Liverpool at Wembley, playing a part in both goals. There was even talk of an England call-up as Roy Hodgson phoned the teenager to discuss his international future. But there were also newspaper exposés of Grealish apparently inhaling ‘hippy crack’ and passed out in the street on a summer holiday in Tenerife.
Those minor transgressions could easily be forgiven, but the youngster struggled with being thrust into the public eye. His performances lacked their previous sparkle as Villa were relegated the following season, and a first campaign in the Championship brought only more questions about the direction in which his career was heading. The worst setback came in pre-season as he fought for his place under Steve Bruce. After colliding with Tom Cleverley in a friendly against Watford, Grealish felt a sharp pain – a trip to hospital revealed his kidney had been damaged, and he would be out for at least three months.
It is only now that the 22-year-old is rediscovering his best form after being eased back into the starting XI since his return from injury in November. Following a fine display in a 5-0 win over promotion rivals Bristol City on January 1st, Bruce revealed the work Grealish has been putting in behind the scenes to ensure he is in peak condition for the run-in. With the help of Oli Stevenson, a former Villa academy player who is now the club’s strength and conditioning coach, the England Under-21 international has bulked up considerably, improving his upper-body strength to hold off defenders on his driving runs towards goal.
“The injury he had earlier in the season scared him,” said Bruce. “But all of a sudden he looks like a man. Let’s be fair, he’s only 22. Oli has done a wonderful job with the club. He’s had Jack in the gym and has worked tirelessly with him for five or six months. His running ability, his strength, it’s there to see.”
As well as working on the physical side of his game, Grealish is also displaying the maturity and application to get the most out of his undoubted natural talent. The influence of John Terry has been a factor, with the captain showing him what it takes to carve out a long career at the top level.
The next test for Grealish and Villa is Saturday’s trip to in-form Fulham, who had mounted an impressive winning run of their own before drawing with Bolton. With seven goals and two assists in his last eight appearances since being moved into a more advanced role, 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon has stolen most of the Championship headlines recently as talk of a summer move to Manchester United or Tottenham continues to bubble. But this is another chance for Grealish to remind everyone of his quality.
His teammate Albert Adomah is certain the attacking midfielder has a big part to play as Villa strive to secure the second automatic promotion place behind Wolves. After he scored his 14th goal of the season against Birmingham, thanks to a Grealish assist, Adomah said: “Since Jack came back in, he’s been immense. Even if he doesn’t score, he produces magic. He creates things from nowhere.”
Grealish might be able to create something from nothing on the pitch, but it is his dedication in training and the gym that has seen him begin to showcase his talent once again. His revival has come at the perfect time for Villa as they pursue an eighth successive win on Saturday.