By Kris Woodward
There was a time that Aston Villa contributed several players to the England set, up when the international breaks came around. Those days seem to be long gone now; the last player to represent England whilst playing for Aston Villa was Fabian Delph in the 2014-15 season.
Looking at the squad now, there aren’t many names that jump out as potential future England players with maybe the exception of Tammy Abraham, although not being our player, does he really count?
One name that fans will be hopeful of though, is Jack Grealish. Back in 2015, Grealish committed his future to England despite representing Republic of Ireland at youth levels.
For a young 20-year-old, this showed a lot of self-confidence. We’ve seen many players with duel nationalities opt to play for other countries, potentially under the assumption it would be easier to gain international opportunities elsewhere.
Arguably a current example of this right would be Wilfred Zaha. Born in Ivory Coast, he moved to England when he was four, Zaha went on to represent England at Under-19, Under-21’s and even the senior side in two friendlies, before switching to play for his country of birth.
Grealish, who has represented England at Under-21 level seven times, clearly backs his ability and you would assume committing his future to England, has every intention of competing for his home nation.
There’s no doubt, if he went the Irish route, he’d currently be on international duty playing alongside Conor Hourihane and Glen Whelan for Mick McCarthy’s Ireland.
Grealish though was willing to play the long game.
Grealish’s Waiting Game
After a sensational World Cup, England has been revitalised under Gareth Southgate. Despite years of disappointment, fans seemed to have got their interest back in the national team. Southgate, who was promoted from Under-21 manager before getting the senior job, is looking to the future and bringing in some young and exciting players.
Two such players who have benefitted from this is Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi who have received England call-ups this month.
Despite missing out for fixtures against Czech Republic and Montenegro, it’s no surprise then that after recent performances, Jack Grealish’s name has been thrown into the mix.Embed from Getty Images
Grealish is a player Southgate is well aware of after working with him in the Under-21s set up. In a recent interview, Southgate acknowledged that Grealish is a player that they are aware of and monitor but outlined that he will always be at a disadvantage whilst playing in the Championship.
“Jack worked with us in the Under-21s briefly. The difficulty is always, although we can see the quality. When the evidence of the opponent is a different level, that’s where it’s hard to directly correlate what that is going to look like at a level above.”
For Villa fans this won’t make good reading. Whilst fans would no doubt love to see him in an England shirt, it looks increasingly likely that won’t come whilst playing in the Championship.
This then sends a clear message to Jack, who last year was being heavily linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur. To be considered for England he needs to play in the Premier League.
Whilst there is still a possibility of playing Premier League football with Aston Villa next season, if Villa fail to make the grade, this will likely influence a decision on his future come the summer.
Although Southgate’s comments on wanting Grealish to be playing at a higher level might come across as fair, there are several contradictions.
The most obvious of these is the England manager’s inclusion of Mason Mount for the Nations League games against Croatia and Spain in October 2018. Whilst Mount didn’t play for England, it does leave fans scratching their heads slightly.
“I’m not going to say we won’t pick a player from the Championship because that could happen but it’s far more difficult to assess his level. You see certain parts of the game but not others. Not the physicality at times, nor the tactical discipline. That’s another level in the Premier League: the speed, the pace. So, he’s a player we know all about, he’s a player we track. But that last bit of evidence that could give you confidence to pick him at the moment we won’t see.”
Southgate later went onto claim that he wouldn’t rule out picking players from the Championship, but alludes to the difference in level between the second-tier and Premier League.
Again this would be a fair comment until you look at the inclusion of Callum Hudson-Odoi. There is no doubt this player has class and bags of ability, especially when you consider the tug of war between Bayern Munich and Chelsea in January. A £35 million bid doesn’t come in for a player that only has ‘potential’.
However, Hudson-Odoi is yet to start a Premier League game for Chelsea this season and so far has only accumulated 119 minutes of Premier League action in six substitute appearances.
The majority of Hudson-Odoi’s game time has come in the FA Cup and Europa League. Most notably playing 90 minutes against Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, both Championship sides.
Again, looking at the opponents the winger has faced in the Europa League (PAOK, BATE, Malmo and most recently Dynamo Kiev), you would be right to question whether these teams are playing at a level higher than the Championship?
Best Thing for Villa
The fact of the matter is, Grealish has played four games since returning from a 3-month injury, only completing 90 minutes in the most recent game against Middlesbrough. Looking at it this way, a first England call up could have been seen as unjustified.
Keeping Jack at Bodymoor Heath and continuing his journey back to full fitness is the most important thing for Grealish and Villa. Whilst an England call-up would have been a massive confidence boost for Jack, it would also have been an unwanted distraction for Smith.
Villa are about to play eight crucial games in their quest for a play-off spot and the morale around Villa Park right now is the best it’s been since Smith first arrived. The Villa manager would have undoubtedly wanted to keep the squad together and prepare them for the conclusion of the season.
Players being dragged to Kazakhstan and losing 3-0 (McGinn), will not be what the Villa manager wanted. W
The End Game
Despite missing out this time, the fact that Southgate has spoken about Grealish and a potential England call up will motivate Jack massively. This is a clear message that he is in the England manager’s thoughts and considerations.
Southgate is right about Championship levels and in that respect, Grealish needs to put a consistent imprint on the league in terms of regularly bossing games and being a match-winner. Something he hasn’t been able to do, mainly down to missing a third of the season through injury.
As mentioned earlier, the downside to this, for Villa fans, is Jack ultimately knows where he must play to be properly considered.
The good news is in the last four Villa games Grealish has helped to inspire the team and put them into a position that best fulfils his own dreams – namely of captaining and playing for Villa in the Premier League.
In terms of Championship football, it’s likely these will be Grealish’s last eight regular season games in the league. Let’s hope they’re also Aston Villa’s.