England’s Jack Grealish revels in the limelight after finally scratching his international itch

“I was desperate,” says Jack Grealish, finally able to call himself an fully-fledged England international after a man-of-the-match display on his first senior start. “I was absolutely desperate to come here.”

The five-year anniversary of his decision to represent England rather than the Republic of Ireland fell at the end of last month and, if not for Marcus Rashford’s withdrawal from September’s camp through injury, it would have passed by without a single cap to Grealish’s name.

That would have been extraordinary, not only given how he has picked one of the most historic clubs in English football up off the canvas and dragged them back to the Premier League over the last five years, but also when considering the long, painful tug-of-war for his allegiance.

The whole saga dominated Grealish’s adolescence but may have been avoided if not for a freak accident while he was away with the England development set-up as a 15-year-old. He cannot remember exactly what happened especially well, apart from a few basic details.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, I went to go to the toilet and then my room-mate – who was Diego Poyet, Gus Poyet’s son – he heard a bang and then I just woke up in the bathroom,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go home the following day, but England said they thought it was best that I did. From then on, I went to play for Ireland through the youth levels and I played for them because of how much I enjoyed it.”

Grealish always felt a strong affinity with Ireland, qualifying through not just one but three of his grandparents and he spent much of his youth in Solihull playing gaelic football, but things change.

“As I got older I realised I am English, my family is English and in the future that’s what I want to do,” he says. “I want to play for England and I’m just so grateful and thankful to the manager for making it happen. I want to be in the squad now for the next however long – five, six years – and I want to have a long England career and get many caps.”

At 25-years-old, he is starting slightly later than planned. Gareth Southgate was still strangely reluctant to use Grealish as recently as late August, when the England manager explained that he was behind Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho in the pecking order for a place on either the left or the right flank. Grealish was not disheartened. “Let’s be honest, it’s the truth, isn’t it?

“You look at these guys and the numbers they have got over the last couple of years and you understand why they are touted as the best wingers in the world,” he says. “I fully agree with that. I have full respect for that. But I also have respect for how much ability I have got. I have respect for myself and I know what I can do.”

Grealish does not just see himself as a winger, though. “When you talk about positions, I had a long chat with the manager in the last camp. He is good for that, you know? He lets you speak to him and he lets you speak your mind, really. I said to him at the time I see myself playing as No 8 for England. I see myself playing as No 10. I see myself as a left-winger or a right-winger. Wherever I am on the pitch, I will play. I am one of these people who just loves football. I’m a footballer. I couldn’t care less where I play.”

The truth is that Grealish has waited so long to be able to call himself an England international, he is simply enjoying the experience of achieving a deep-rooted personal goal and doing what he loves in a new and different environment. “Sometimes, you come away from Villa… I have known Villa my whole life. It’s always been ‘Villa, Villa, Villa’ – I have never been anywhere else,” he says. “Sometimes it is nice to have that change of scenery.

“But it is the standard that these guys set. They are the top players. You only have to look at Harry Kane… he is first on the training pitch, he is first in the meetings. He is last off the training pitch, he is practicing his finishing; free-kicks, every single day. Sometimes it makes you think: ‘You know what? No wonder he is one of the best strikers in the world.’ You see that and it makes you want to go back to Villa and set them standards around the place.”

If the response to his performance against Wales is anything to go by, Grealish may soon be setting standards at international level, as well as with his club. Southgate described him as a “matador” post-match – a player willing to make himself a target for the entertainment of others. An England player with Grealish’s combination of flair, courage and technique is a rare thing. There is an obvious comparison to draw.

“I know about Gazza,” Grealish says. “Do you what? I don’t really see myself as him but I would love to be like him, the way that he played football. He played with such… I don’t know what the right word is – but he played football with such joy. I think everyone who watched him could see that. That is what I want to do. One of the biggest compliments for people to say to you is that you make them happy watching football.”

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