Hit the road, Jack

It’s time for Villa fans to let Grealish go

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Barcelona fans had to do it with Lionel Messi; Watford fans with Troy Deeney. There comes a time when football supporters and their heroes have to say goodbye.

The farewell need not be acrimonious. A player might be retiring, or his talent might be waning. You can be generous when he spends his final years in Major League Soccer in America or, less glamorously, at Coventry City.

A lifelong Villa supporter found himself assailed as a snake and a traitor

But when your hero heads for somewhere “bigger” or “better”, the feelings can grow rancorous. What then should we do? What is the etiquette of saying goodbye?

This summer, Manchester City bought Jack Grealish, the Aston Villa captain, for £100 million. It was a record fee for an English player and for a buying club in the Premier League. Grealish, a lifelong Villa supporter and product of the club’s academy system, found himself assailed by fans and local journalists as a snake and a traitor.

The controversy is not about the departure alone. One year earlier, Grealish had signed a new five-year contract. Then, he explained he was determined to help realise the ambitions of Villa’s billionaire co-owners. In a tweet he declared: “My city. My club. My home. #Grealish2025”.

Kept secret, however, was a release clause in the contract. If another club could pay £100 million to sign him, and that club was in the European Champions League and Villa were not, Grealish had insisted he must be free to leave.

The revelation of the release clause, and Grealish’s decision to go, prompted bitter jokes: “My city. My club. My release clause.” But was his decision so bad?

Clearly it was a mistake, as he signed the new contract, to suggest his loyalty was unconditional. It was odder still, just two months before leaving Villa, to admire Francesco Totti, the former Roma player, who had “stayed at his club throughout his whole career and showed great loyalty there”. This was tactlessness, however, and not malevolence. As fans know, players have short careers. Every year given to a club incapable of challenging for trophies, or qualifying for the Champions League, represents a great chunk of their playing life.

Grealish has gone from Villa, who last won a major trophy in 1996, to Manchester City, who have won the Premier League in three of the last four years. He will inevitably win copious trophies with his new team. And he is bound to play more for England too. For it is the received wisdom that to start regularly for the national team footballers must perform regularly “at the highest level”.

This might make sense superficially, but it reflects a cosiness between the England management and the Champions League clubs and their players. Last season Grealish was supposedly not good enough for England while he was scoring and creating goals and destroying top teams like Liverpool. This season, he found himself in the starting eleven, before playing European football and having fewer goals and assists than last year.

Some fans protest that these are not the right yardsticks. Grealish can win dozens of trophies at Man City, but he will not become a legend there. He will be another itinerant talent who comes and goes. Had he stayed at Villa, and led his boyhood club to even one or two trophies, he would have been, like Totti, an iconic hero, up there with the 1982 Villa team that won the European Cup.

But fans saying “if I were Jack” miss the point. Unlike the comedian Chris Rock, who when asked if he worries that women date him because he is Chris Rock, answered, “But I am Chris Rock!”, these fans are not Jack Grealish. And only Grealish can decide his future.

In fact, Grealish appears to have looked after the club he loved, even as he knew he might leave. His release clause showed he did not want to go just anywhere, as it limited him to joining a Champions League club. Even then, it required them to pay a record-breaking fee for him. He might have priced himself out of a move.

Grealish should show more tact, and the fans should stay calm

Of course it is galling for Villa fans that Grealish went to Manchester City, widely derided as a plastic club made viable only by the oil wealth of its Emirati owner, Sheikh Mansour. It is doubly galling that Villa believe they are on a trajectory towards success and trophies themselves. The success, the club’s coach lamented, was just not near enough to match Grealish’s ambitions.

Most fans accept this. But tactlessness has again intruded. Every time Grealish appears in the media, he is asked to justify his transfer. Is it more likely he will start for England now? Is his new coach better? What about his new teammates? Perhaps as a Villa fan Grealish feels he needs to justify the move more than a mercenary would. But some supporters have found his answers disrespectful. Some now even believe conspiracy theories, alleging Grealish faked an injury and missed games last season to avoid jeopardising his transfer.

This is nonsense. But both parties need to rediscover their etiquette. Grealish should show more tact, and the fans should stay calm. Grealish is no longer destined to be a Villa legend but he is no snake either. He is a Villa fan who made a tough decision for his career. The fans should neither sing for him nor boo him: it is time to let him go.

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