Jack Grealish and knowing your true self

Jack Reynolds’ second cap as an Irish International came in the spring of 1890 against England. It was the occasion of Reynolds only goal in the “St. Patrick’s blue” of Ireland, the Distillery winger grabbing what couldn’t even be called a consolation in a 9-1 drubbing at the Ulster Cricket Ground where the diminutive Everton striker Fred Geary grabbed a hat-trick for the three lions.

So far nothing too unusual, Ireland were the whipping boys of the early Home Nations Championship finishing bottom in six of the first seven competitions. What is unusual about Reynolds is that he would end up winning three Home Nation Championships. For England.

Jack Reynolds (born 1869) an Irish and English international

Jack Reynolds circa 1890

Reynolds had been born in Blackburn in 1869 but moved to Ireland at a young age and grew up in Country Antrim. He signed for Blackburn Rovers at the age of 15 before a spell in the Army saw him return on duty to Ireland where he ended up playing for both Distillery and Ulster F.C. during which time he won five caps for the Irish National team.

It was only upon his return to England with West Brom that Reynolds discovered he had actually been born in England. It was during his time in the midlands with West Brom and Aston Villa that he would win his eight caps for the England national team.

It is tempting to draw parallels between Reynolds and another Jack, young Jack Grealish. Both talented wingers, both Aston Villa players, in fact there may even have been a bit of overlap between Reynolds, whose Villa career ended in 1897 and Grealish’s great grandfather Billy Garraty who joined Villa that same year. But one thing that they won’t have in common it seems is lining out for both Ireland and England.

Grealish has stuck to his guns on his international future, stating earlier this year that he would make a decision come September, Martin O’Neill tried to force the issue by calling him into the squad for the upcoming friendly against England and qualifier against Scotland.

In theory Grealish could have played against England in the friendly and still switched his allegiance to them thereafter, but as things stand it appears that young Jack won’t reveal his hand until September at the earliest.

Much comment has been passed about the apparent rebuttal to O’Neill by Grealish. It prompted former football and rugby captains Kenny Cunningham and Brian O’Driscoll spoke on air about the issue, which was neatly summarised by Dan McDonnell in a recent Irish Independent article.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of a 19 year olds decision (there is plenty already written on the subject) what would perhaps be better to examine is why there is so much fuss about a player who a year ago was lining out on loan at Notts County in League One. A clue to all this hubbub can perhaps be seen in a closer examination of O’Neill’s current squad.

O’Neill has been criticised for not trying out enough new players and sticking with the same ageing group that he inherited from Giovanni Trapattoni. Some new players such as Cyrus Christie and David McGoldrick were blooded in the friendly against the USA, and the uncapped in the current squad include Harry Arter of Bournemouth, Alan Judge of Brentford and Adam Rooney of Aberdeen.

Arter, Judge and Rooney all have certain similarities, they are all in around the same age, 26, 25 and 27 respectively. All have represented Ireland at under age level at some stage. And all three have won their first call-up on the back of impressive seasons, not in the Premier League but in the Championship and in Rooney’s case the SPL.

All three have taken a circuitous route to the Irish International squad, loan moves, dropping down divisions, (including in Arter’s case a spell at non-league Woking) before settling into regular football at their current clubs.

They have all been selected on form rather than reputation; Judge’s trickery helping Brentford to the play-offs, Rooney has scored 27 goals in all competitions this season propelling Aberdeen to second in the SPL, while Arter has been one of the best midfielders in the Championship this year and will join the ranks of Irish internationals in the Premier League next season. This perhaps hints at a career trajectory not dissimilar to an established current international like Jonathan Walters.

Grealish pic

William Garraty & great-great grandson Jack Grealish, both of Aston Villa

It is players like this who are more emblematic of Ireland’s footballing future than Premier League starlet than Grealish.

It’s hard to think of the last time in recent years that an Irish teenager has broken through at Premier League level, the last time that a number of such players came through was the emergence of the likes of Damien Duff, Shay Given, John O’Shea, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane at the turn of the millennium, most of whom had come through the successful Irish youth sides of Brian Kerr.

I’ve banged on about this before but we are not producing elite level players in any consistent manner.

This paucity of top level talent means that we have a tendency to latch onto talents like Grealish and heap the future of Irish football onto his narrow shoulders rather than looking at our technical deficiencies and the reasons that many of our more technically gifted players are being produced through the coaching and youth development systems of other national associations.

If Grealish makes his decision in September and indicates that he’ll line out for Ireland then our national team will be the stronger for it and any prevarication or seeming reluctance will surely be forgotten, much as it was with former internationals like Clinton Morrison or Jason McAteer.

If he chooses to represent England then rather than letting their ire pour out against a 19-year-old footballer on Twitter, Irish fans might look closer to home at our own coaching structures and player development paths rather than the decision of a young man to represent the nation of his birth.

At a recent Italia 90 nostalgia evening arranged as part of the One City One Book event to celebrate Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy in Lansdowne Road, the RTE panel of Dunphy, Giles and the late Bill O’Herlihy was reconvened with Paul McGrath and Charlie O’Leary also in attendance. Giles and Dunphy were still trenchant in their criticism of Jack Charlton, his style of football, his lack of professionalism and so on.

And despite the general light-hearted air of the event Dunphy pursued a darker thread of discussion, veering off on a tangent where he discussed the current state of the game.

He decried the death of the street footballer, what an Argentine fan might call a pibe, and stated that football was “dead in Ireland”, Scotland, England and so on, that the quality of player was not being produced by these nations anymore. He referenced the abundance of quality in the squads of the Charlton and Hand eras, how many of these players were regulars at top English clubs.

Dunphy only sees decline but seems to fail to appreciate that the English Premier League is now truly global, it is global in its reach, fans, media influence and the manner in which it sources its players in a way it never did in the past even when Britain was a centre of global empire. The favoured role of the Irish footballer in Britain with our shared language, cultural similarities, intertwined history and geographical proximity count for far less now.

The Premier League is a brutal, unforgiving meritocracy, it doesn’t care where you’re from (even though racism and xenophobia certainly still exist) it cares that you win. As the Premier League has casted its net wider in search of playing talent this has led to young Irish players facing far greater competition.

While we may not be producing Duffs and Keanes in abundance today maybe we haven’t gotten thatmuch worse? Certainly not to the point that football is “dying” as Dunphy maintains, perhaps it’s just that a league that many in Ireland view as our own has gotten more competitive and other nations, once viewed as minnows during Dunphy’s playing career have improved immeasurably. As others have caught up so our access to the elite levels has diminished.

In the past a successful or at least improving Irish side was able to secure the services from top flight clubs of “granny rule” players like John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend, or though astute scouting recruit players like Mark Lawrenson long before he was a star for Liverpool.

Many of these players were recruited through personal connections, Aldridge and Houghton being recommended by Dave Langan while Preston North End legend Alan Kelly Sr. spotted a teenage Lawrenson and alerted the Irish manager at the time John Giles long before he would have come to the notice of an England manager.

While these recruitment methods still work today the football landscape of the 70s and 80s was not one where agents are as ubiquitous as now, where salaries weren’t as inflated or where people used social media to lambast players for every decision. Modern external pressures and opinions, as well as player empowerment and FIFA eligibility changes mean that things are less straightforward today.

The ancient Greeks had a saying, often quoted by Socrates, which simply said “know thyself”. One interpretation being that before seeking to gain greater knowledge or expertise or before commenting on the actions of others one should first know your own being and nature.

Before we lambast Jack Grealish for not rushing into a decision perhaps Irish fans should consider the Football Association, structure, facilities and challenges that influence the development of football in Ireland and look to why we have not produced another three or four players of Grealish’s profile to replenish our ageing squad.

Jack Grealish’s predecessor Jack Reynolds thought he knew himself, raised and educated in County Antrim where he also played his football, he lined out for Ireland and like a character from Greek tragedy did not realise his error until it was too late.

Let’s allow Jack Grealish the time to get to “know himself”, trying to define who and what you are and what you will represent indelibly is hard enough for any of us, never mind a 19-year-old caught in the public gaze.

First published in May 2015 for backpagefootball.com 

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