How Jack The Lad Became Our Man

·15-min read


People always say, ‘You must do loads of calf raises.’ But I really don’t,” says Jack Grealish, with his Peaky Blinders accent and haircut. The Aston Villa and England playmaker has simply always had big calves. When he was eight, the other players on Solihull’s Highgate United, where he played for one season before being scouted by Villa, used to ask how his calves got so big. But his grandad has big calves. Like supporting Villa, big calves run in his family.

Grealish doesn’t know why his calves inspire so much fascination. (A jigsaw, “The Wonderful World of Jack Grealish’s Calves”, is available on eBay for £16.99.) He supposes that they’re just what people look at with his trademark rolled-down socks. One season at Villa, the socks shrunk in the wash, which coincided with a run of personal form. He’s worn them down ever since (despite referees telling him to pull them up), over children’s shin pads, which he finds less restrictive than full-size ones.

Now 25, Grealish has grown into his calves. Villa’s local boy wonder first hit the national back pages as a 19-year-old with a man-of-the-match performance in a 2-1 FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool in 2015. Almost immediately, year-old photos of him allegedly high on nitrous oxide (legal but not sensible) hit the front pages. That summer, more pictures emerged appearing to show Grealish lying drunk in a street in Tenerife. A few months later, he was dropped for going clubbing after a 4-0 defeat to Everton. But fast-forward five or six years and “Jack the Lad” has since become Villa’s main man – talisman, even – and, since 2019, its captain. When he found out, he ran straight out of the training ground to phone his dad.

Photo credit: DAVID ELLIS
Photo credit: DAVID ELLIS

Elder Statesman

Grealish “obviously matured” when he was given the armband. When he was 20, he didn’t dare dream that he’d be captaining Villa by the time he was 23. “But I absolutely love doing it,” he says. “I feel like it puts that bit more pressure on myself, which I like as well.”

A captain who prefers to do his talking with the ball, Grealish is also quick to let his teammates know that if anybody ever needs to speak, he’s always there. After 17 years at Villa, he’s an elder club statesman of sorts. But barely out of the category of young player, he’s also the sort who might need to go to an older squad member for advice. And he would feel “no shame” in doing so, he says. He might be captain – the youngest in the Premier League – but he’s still learning every day. Grealish’s appointment coincided with a club record run of 10 straight wins that returned Villa to the top flight in 2019. And their captain, relegated three years earlier with the unwanted personal record of playing in 16 consecutive Premier League defeats, looked every inch an elite player. “You just have to look at his legs now,” said manager Dean Smith (who suspected that “a lot of girls” already were). “He’s got power in his calves, he’s got power in his glutes and he’s got power in his thighs.” Seeing in Grealish “a real athlete”, Smith overlooked the persona of the tabloids. “I know for a fact how professional and driven this lad is now,” he says.

There have been wrong turns. In the first lockdown, when football – like the rest of life – was on pause, CCTV footage emerged of Grealish crashing his Range Rover into parked cars and looking worse for wear in mismatched slides, having allegedly partied at a former Villa player’s flat. After a “deeply embarrassing” video apology, Grealish was hit with a club fine, which went to charity, and a nine-month driving ban. In December, he technically breached COVID-19 regulations by going for dinner with teammate Ross Barkley for the latter’s birthday at a restaurant in tier-2 London, even though they ate together every day at Villa’s training ground. (At home, Grealish has meals delivered by the same personal chef as the England captain, Harry Kane.)

On the pitch, however, the Villan has been a hero. On the last day of the season before last, he scored to prevent Villa going straight back down to the Championship, his eighth league goal of a COVID-disrupted season (10th in all competitions), which he finished as the club’s top scorer. Asked if he expected Grealish to still be at Villa the following season, Smith quipped: “I expect him to get drunk with me tonight.”

“He’s an impish Brummie kid made good,” says Birmingham-raised author Lee Child, who perhaps recognises one when he sees one. Too good, in fact, to be an in-joke in the Villa fan’s bestselling Jack Reacher novels, as many other club alumni have been: FBI agents called McGrath and Milosevic, an ex-SAS operative called Graham Taylor. “I love the way he seems to have two seconds more than anyone else – always relaxed, always gliding, always smart,” says Child. “No doubt a complete hooligan off the pitch, but a joy on it – and loyal so far. Let’s hope he stays that way.”

Instead of leaving Villa last summer, Grealish signed a new five-year contract worth £140,000 a week to become the club’s highest-paid player ever. In the first half of last season, with Captain Jack at the helm and other signings on board, the relegation battlers turned into swashbuckling counter-attackers, adding to the general surreality. In October, Grealish scored two goals and assisted two in a memorable 7-2 evisceration of reigning champions Liverpool; in November, he assisted one goal in a 3-0 humbling of Arsenal.

Grealish’s dazzling performance in his long-awaited first competitive start for England that month was the lone bright spot of a dismal 2-0 defeat to Belgium. And that flick? Oof. Turning away as he received the pass, he back-heeled the ball over himself and his befuddled opponent. In the eerie, near-empty stadium, the gasps of the professionals present were audible. At full time, Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, the current playmaker par excellence, made a beeline to swap shirts with Grealish – real recognising real. “He’s world-class,” says Gregg Evans who, before covering Villa for sports journalism website the Athletic, spent a decade at the Birmingham Mail and has followed Grealish’s development since he broke into the first team. Now, Grealish, who aged 18 made his Villa debut in 2014 as an 88th-minute sub in a 4-0 defeat to Man City, could start for any club in world football, says Evans. “He’s also England’s most exciting talent.”

Photo credit: DAVID ELLIS
Photo credit: DAVID ELLIS

Winning Personality

Inevitably, Grealish has been compared to the likes of Paul Gascoigne and George Best. Beyond the combination of on-field ability and off-field indiscretions, Grealish, like Gazza, seems to resonate with fans. “He’s a unique personality,” says Evans. “That’s why he appeals.”

Before a shin injury kept him out for three months, Grealish had racked up six goals and 10 assists in 22 Premier League games last season. He adds that he also won two penalties, both converted: “That’s 18 goal involvements in 22 games, which I don’t think is bad at all, for a team that’s not exactly right up there.” He returned to fitness in time to help Villa further embarrass would-be European Super League founder members Tottenham and Chelsea. And hopefully he’ll play a decisive role in the European Championships. (When you read this, England could be bringing football home, or are home without it.)

Maximum Speed

Grealish remembers everything about the games that he has played in, even from two or three years ago, and watches them back – with the exception of the 3-0 defeat by Manchester United the season before last, because he missed a chance at 0-0 and was just generally “so bad”. As soon as he got home, he deleted the match from his Sky box. As he gets older, he is getting better at not beating himself up.

So, what did he do differently last season? “A lot of it is down to confidence,” he says, even though he’s “not really shy”. But he started well and just took off from there. And he has done more lower-body weights in the gym: not calf raises but squats, lunges and leg extensions. He feels that these helped him to hit a PB for speed.

Data compiled by AI-powered analytics company Sportlogiq in February showed Grealish’s average top speed of over 33km was the highest of all Premier League midfielders who had played more than 450 minutes. His average of 65 high-intensity sprints and runs per 90 minutes? Also right up there.

“The gym has helped me so much,” says Grealish. He’s close with Villa strength and conditioning coach Oli Stevenson, his former academy captain who, said former first-team manager Steve Bruce, “single-handedly” transformed Grealish. “We looked at him and went, ‘Oh, my God!’” he says. “Physique-wise, he’s a beast now.”

In a pre-season game in the summer of 2017, Grealish got an innocent elbow under the ribs that cut his kidney in two places, causing internal bleeding. Grealish’s surgeon had only ever seen such an injury in victims of car crashes or horse trampling, and told the then 21-year-old that he could die. After 10 nights in hospital, then about three weeks off at home, Grealish returned to health with a renewed appreciation of life’s preciousness. Besides, he “couldn’t really do a fat lot”. The one thing he could do was hit the gym.

“At the start of that, I kid you not, I could not do two pull-ups,” he says. “Then, by the end, I was doing four sets of eight pull-ups, five sets of eight. Now, I can do pull-ups all day. I can do them easily.” He got to like the gym and the “nice pain” from working hard, and was in there for most of the nearly four months he was out. “And since then, I’ve never really looked back.”

During lockdown, Grealish had a JG10-branded home gym installed by equipment manufacturer BLK BOX that he can use on days off, or of a night “when I’m just sitting there”, saving him going back into Villa’s training ground. “I like being in the gym,” he says. “It’s obviously good for your body, it’s good for your head, and it’s good for when you’ve got stuff going on.” Whatever you do in there, cardio or weights, he explains, “You always come out feeling better.”

In his latest injured spell, Grealish kept his fitness up with a Wattbike, which he hates but considers “the best cardio”. When he is playing every weekend, he hits the gym two or three times a week, focusing on his upper body: “I feel like it gets you fitter, as stupid as it sounds.” And he feels stronger when he’s pushing people off at speed, less likely to be knocked off balance.

“His strength and balance are what sets him apart,” says the Athletic’s Evans. “He can get his body into positions that win him so many fouls.” Last season, Grealish was fouled 110 times, 22 more than any other player – the most in the Premier League, even though he missed three months with injury. The season before, Grealish was fouled 167 times, 47 more than any other player, the most in Premier League history. The season before that, he was fouled 161 times, 45 more than any other player, the most in the Championship, despite missing half of the season with injury. He has been accused of holding onto the ball too long, diving and cheating.

Grealish’s explanation is that he has the ball so much. Last season, more than ever, teams doubled up on him. He feels like they’re instructed to “leave a bit on him”. When he was 21, he retaliated to a challenge from Wolves defender Conor Coady with a stamp that earned him a three-game ban for violent conduct. But the more he gets fouled, and the older he gets, the more he tries to take it as a compliment. Losing your head affects your game. Being fouled only annoys him when he’s about to counter-attack. “As long as I’m winning my team free-kicks in the right areas,” he says, “I don’t mind it.”

Last season, West Ham played two right-backs on Grealish’s side, Villa’s left, doubling up and forcing him to pass. He probably should have switched to the other flank, “but I didn’t because I’m stubborn. I wanted both of them. I wanted to go past both of them to prove it to myself and to prove it to them.” Eventually, Smith told Grealish to play at number 10, at which point he drifted out to the right and got an assist. He learned something that day.

It stuck. Grealish watches so much football that he claims he knows the style and traits of every right back in the Premiership – whether they’re fast, what foot they favour, typical tricks. Before games, he watches clips of his favourite players and visualises himself doing what they do. When he’s not playing or watching football, he’s playing FIFA – more football – or Call of Duty: Warzone. (He bicycle-kicked a grenade in the star-studded season three trailer.)

Under Attack

A boy playing a “man’s game”, Grealish came of age in the more physical leagues below the Premiership. In 2013-14, he spent a season on loan at Notts County, where manager Shaun Derry voiced his concern over the brutal treatment of the 17-year-old Grealish. “One player hits him,” he said. “Then another. Then another.” When Grealish was kicked off the pitch against Stevenage, Derry and his staff were ready to hit someone, and declined the post-game drink with their opposite numbers in protest.

Even at 17, he was the best player in League One, in Derry’s estimation. Grealish helped to keep County up and scored his first professional goal for them, gliding past three players and firing into the roof of the net before running to the other side of the pitch to hug his dad in the stands. That “encapsulated everything he’s about, both as a player and a person”, said Derry. True, Grealish did turn up for a Boxing Day match, not in the club tracksuit, but in an outfit more fitting for making merry in a nightclub. “But deep down, he is such a good guy.”

“The amount he gives back to charity and fans is incredible,” says Evans. “Most of that goes unreported.” Cerebral palsy, which his sister Holly has, is especially close to his heart. After the Range Rover incident, Grealish raised over £55,000 for the NHS by auctioning the shirt he wore in the Second City derby in 2019, when a Birmingham fan ran onto the pitch and punched him. The attacker was later jailed; Grealish kept his head and scored the winner.

After that man-of-the-match performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 2015, the 19-year-old Grealish went into the showers on his own and cried. His dad had been at Villa’s FA Cup semi-final against Bolton in 2000, when he heard that his son Keelan – Jack’s younger brother – had passed away from cot death at nine months. Grealish dedicated that beautiful first professional goal to his baby brother, and many more since. On the 18th anniversary of Keelan’s passing, Grealish posted on Instagram: “As long as there is someone in the sky to protect me, there is no one on Earth who could break me.” The family donated a trophy that Grealish won when he was seven or eight to his primary school, which renamed it in Keelan’s honour.

There should be more trophies. Grealish wants to win as many as possible, whether as a team or individually. “When I say individual, I don’t mean that selfishly. I mean, if you ever won PFA Player of the Year, it’s something that you’d treasure for ever. But obviously you want to win cups with your team, whether that be Champions Leagues, FA Cups, Premier Leagues. They all mean so much. That’s what I want to achieve in my career. I have places that I’d love to play. I’d love to play in Spain one day. I’d love to play in the US. I have a lot of stuff I’d like to do.”

Thankfully, Grealish also has time. He wants to play until he’s 35, 40 – as long as possible. Though he was “actually devoed” (devastated) to come out of the young player bracket, he’s not quite past being a lad yet. “I still class myself as young-ish.”

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