Dodgy knees. Not the first characteristic that comes to mind when listing the defining features of all powerful deities, but that doesn’t stop Aston Villa fans from referring to club legend Paul McGrath as such.
The man endured no less than eight surgeries during his career to keep his joints in working order. The man who admitted to struggling with alcoholism and playing under the influence. The man who Villans’ consider the best player to ever wear the shirt, and with the highest amount of respect, have affectionately nicknamed “God”.
Signed from Manchester United in the summer of 1989, McGrath quickly became a staple fixture of Villa’s defence, despite his persistent knee issues that led Sir Alex Ferguson to replace him at Old Trafford. In his first season in the Midlands, the Irish international finished second with the club, a feat that they repeated two terms later.
In that third season, the inaugural Premier League campaign, McGrath was voted the PFA Players’ Player of the Year by his peers. He captained his country four times in 1992 after playing all five games of Ireland’s historic 1990 World Cup run, eventually losing against host nation and tournament favourites Italy.Embed from Getty Images
Fast forward 31 years and another Aston Villa superstar’s reputation is growing. Some fans, mostly of other clubs, are calling him the best player in Villa’s lengthy history. Fans of his nation, regardless of club allegiance, are quite literally crying out for him to rise heroically from the Wembley dugout and take to the field to battle the invading foreign forces at the delayed Euro 2020, and every time his manager reluctantly called upon him, he commanded the attention of the world.
He had grown up in claret and blue, a young lad rising through the ranks. Progressing, developing, showing no signs of slowing down, even on the biggest of stages, under the brightest of spotlights. England may have suffered the same fate against Italy in the Euro 2020 final as McGrath’s Ireland, but back in Birmingham, he was still the pride of his city, his club and his home. Introducing, Jack Grealish.Embed from Getty Images
A False Prophet
Aston Villa’s relegation from the Premier League at the conclusion of the 15/16 season was the culmination of a decade of club mismanagement. Pointless signings, uninspiring coaching and a clueless, careless board. It was a long time coming, and for many fans, the lowest point in their lifetimes.
Whilst Jack Grealish undoubtedly shared these sentiments, being Villa through and through, the drop-down to the Championship offered him a stage on which to shine. As the young man reached his early 20’s, it became clear that he was too good for the second tier of English football.
Tottenham Hotspur offered him a lifeline, bidding a reported £25 million to take him back to the Premier League. Villa wanted almost double that. There was word that Grealish was unhappy about his club’s refusal to sell him to the London outfit, and when Aston Villa lost the 2018 Championship Play-off Final against Fulham, the writing looked to be on the wall.
Chinese businessman Tony Xia, now spending his time behind bars, was a snake oil salesman who almost led the historic club to financial doom. Selling Jack Grealish to anyone at this point seemed inevitable if only to reduce a wage bill that was £60 million more than the Championship average.
Enter, NSWE. Egyptian Nassef Sawiris and American Wes Edens purchased the club, their net worth in the billions. Villa were saved, Dean Smith was hired and Jack Grealish proved his loyalty by sticking around for another push at promotion. As a reward for his lifelong commitment, the boyhood fan was given the captain’s armband, an honour which surely cannot be overstated. He was a genuine legend-in-the-making. The heir to Paul McGrath’s throne?
That following year, Villa did it. A thrilling 2-1 victory over Derby (which proved to be a ‘sliding doors’ moment for the East Midlands club, too) led Aston Villa back to the Premier League. “The fallen giants are back on their feet”, said match commentator Daniel Mann. With NSWE at the helm, Mann was correct. Instantly, the club became the third-richest in the elite league and the future looked bright once again.
Villa scraped through to avoid relegation in their returning Premier League season. Sporting Director Jesus Garcia Pitarch took the brunt of the blame for a worrying campaign, his signings being deemed less than adequate. Johan Lange, the man whose cheesy grin has received the meme treatment, joined the club and has seemingly worked some seriously powerful magic.Embed from Getty Images
Several excellent signings followed, including Ollie Watkins from Brentford and Messi’s mate Emi Martinez, which has turned out to be one of the best signings in the team’s recent history. But, perhaps more important than any new signing was the fresh five-year contract penned by club captain Grealish.
This was the move that all but confirmed Grealish’s place in the Aston Villa hall of fame upon his retirement. The boy could do no wrong. Except for all the times he did. Like breaking lockdown rules, drink-driving, partaking in a particularly naughty photoshoot… but Aston Villa fans glossed over it all. They had his back because he had theirs.
An unfathomable start to the new season had fans dreaming of “doing a Leicester”. Winning their first four games, including a mind-boggling 7-2 victory over defending champions Liverpool, the stars seemed to be aligning for the club. Was Grealish’s commitment going to be rewarded?
Ultimately, Villa finished 11th that season, a drop-off in form not helped by their captain’s long-term shin injury. However, the year-on-year progress was obvious. Big things seemed to be on the cards for the 21/22 campaign.
Grealish was excellent at the Euros in the summer. His performances earned him the respect of the nation and his international teammates, some of whom are partly blamed by Villa fans for what happened next.
Upon the conclusion of the European Championship tournament, murmurs of interest in Grealish grew into deafening shouts. Manchester City wanted him and for the new champions of England, money is no object. A £100 million bid sent the football world into hysteria. Aston Villa’s social media channels were out of control, fans demanding any kind of closure on a transfer saga that would have felt as though it had rattled on for years.
Villans and Citizens convinced themselves that he was staying and coming respectively, a metaphorical tug-of-war with the player in the middle seemingly calm amongst the storm, evidenced by the bizarre timing of his Instagram post showcasing a meeting with musician Ed Sheeran. Grealish was bombarded with messages, even confronted at a Villa training session, warning him that the grass may not be greener on the other side. Little did they know, his mind had been made up a year ago.
On the evening of Grealish’s transfer to Manchester City, Aston Villa CEO Christian Purslow recorded a frank and honest video updating fans on the situation. Jack Grealish, however, may have considered himself firmly thrown under the bus by this.
A release clause – requested by Grealish – of £100 million, giving the player a way out if a ‘bigger club’ came in. This information, more than anything else, was the nail in the coffin for Grealish’s reputation at Aston Villa Football Club. The hopes and prayers that he might do the honourable thing and turn down Champions League football to continue the Villa project were for nothing.
Dodgy shins. A problem that has become as synonymous with Jack Grealish as floppy hair and theatrical diving. But the Villa faithful stuck with him, even through his refusal to wear grown-up shin pads. Whilst some understood his personal reasons for leaving, the majority were struck with a deep feeling of betrayal. The future legend was in the past.
A Second Coming
It is now time for Villa to find a new hero. A new name for kids to roleplay as they score screamers on the park against their dads. There are a few that stand a chance in the current group.
Tyrone Mings certainly has the leadership qualities and stature, but his performances often leave something to be desired. John McGinn is another, a true fan favourite. The kind of player you can’t dislike, but for the past two seasons, he has often struggled to replicate the form he achieves for Scotland in claret and blue. There is also Ezri Konsa, the young centre-back who is almost unanimously considered to be more deserving of an England call-up than new club captain Mings. Konsa is hugely respected by the Villa faithful, which leaves him in good stead should he wish to pursue legend status.
Aston Villa’s youth academy also holds many future stars, there is no doubt about it. The club won the FA Youth Cup this year, and a ‘senior’ squad made up entirely of youngsters gave Liverpool a scare, with the Red Men having to bring out the big guns to see Aston Villa off.Embed from Getty Images
Louie Barry scored in the 4-1 defeat to Liverpool and looked to be the club’s future number 9, after a homecoming from Barcelona’s La Masia. The first English player to attend, Barry is a certain talent. His current loan move to Ipswich Town is not exactly going to plan, but there is plenty of time for the 18-year old to get back on track.
Cameron Archer is currently attracting attention too, with 12 goals in 9 games, including a magnificent header against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. If Ollie Watkins cannot find his form, Archer could find a place on the bench in the Premier League very soon.
Then there is Carney Chukwuemeka. With 3 senior appearances under his belt already at the age of 18, and so nearly a goal on his debut (rattling the post against Spurs). Last month, Chukweumeka captained the England under-19 side in a 2-0 victory over Italy U19’s. With his brother Caleb also signing for Villa this season, there seems to be something in the water in the Chukwuemeka household.
And the same could be said for the Ramsey family. Jacob regularly starts for the senior team now, scoring his first goal for the club against Arsenal last time out – a delightful finish to open his account – whilst younger brother Aaron keeps on scoring for the youth side and scored on his debut for England under-19’s this month.
However, there is one man in the current first team that seems to be most likely to replace Jack Grealish directly, both in sheer footballing ability and in the hearts of fans. He may not be a local lad, but in his brief appearances for Aston Villa since signing from Bayer Leverkusen, he’s shown glimpses of utter brilliance.
Welcome to Aston Villa…
A proper marquee signing. Neutrals predicted that his arrival confirmed Grealish’s departure. Villans convinced themselves it was a sign of the club’s ambition, trying to persuade Jack that the Midlands club is capable of greatness before he reached the twilight of his career.
What it actually was, was a stroke of genius from Lange and everyone else involved.Embed from Getty Images
Leon Bailey could be the immediate future of Aston Villa Football Club. On the opening day of the season, his new club were 3-0 down against newly-promoted Watford. He was introduced as a substitute and had an instant impact, producing a sublime cross for John McGinn to skillfully score from. An injury sustained on international duty for Jamaica at the Gold Cup then left him out of action for a month, leaving Villa fans salivating in anticipation of his return.
One month later, Bailey enters the game against Everton from the bench. In a whirlwind 21 minutes, the game shifted from 0-0 to 3-0, with Bailey scoring once and forcing Lucas Digne into an own goal directly from a corner. As swiftly as the Jamaican entered the game, he was gone again. After kicking the ball too hard when he scored (his words, not mine) Bailey aggravated his injury and made his way back to the bench. A cameo appearance, but an extremely effective one.
Bailey is just starting to feature again, assisting Jacob Ramsey’s goal against Arsenal. If he can remain fit – and after spending £30 million, Villa will hope he can – he will surely start running teams ragged and tormenting fullbacks for the remainder of the season. His blistering pace will give defenders nightmares, as will his willingness to run at them fearlessly. He is a player never lacking in confidence and one who is not scared of the limelight.
Where Grealish would often slow down the game with his dribbling, or win a free-kick rather than progress up the field, Leon Bailey looks like a player who will powerfully drive into the penalty area and unleash a piledriver at any goalkeeper who stands in his way.
The 24-year old registered 9 goals and 8 assists in 30 appearances for Leverkusen in the Bundesliga last season, but what’s more impressive is that Bailey already has experience in the tournaments Grealish left Villa to take part in. 5 goals and 2 assists in 8 Europa League games is a tally not to be sniffed at, and with three Champions League appearances on his record from the 19/20 season, it’s fair to say Leon Bailey is the already the finished article.
For now, Paul McGrath’s god status remains untouched. A pretender to the throne has come and gone, already forgotten by many. The 1st of December should be interesting when Grealish returns to Aston in an away kit for the first time. Will Leon Bailey be fit and ready to show him up on his old stomping ground, or will the Englishman prove that he’s still the King of Villa Park and there’s nothing the home fans can do about it?