October, 1974, Dublin. A slight 18-year-old with wavy hair is thrust into the spotlight by player-manager John Giles at a pulsating Dalymount Park for the European Championship qualifier with the USSR. The young Arsenal star Liam Brady’s first appearance in an Irish shirt had Republic fans salivating and with Don Givens’ hat-trick, the game has gone down as one of Ireland’s finest victories against a footballing powerhouse, not least because of the diamond we had unearthed.
Giles, now considered one of the finest football minds we’ve produced to accompany his mesmerising feet from his playing days, described Brady adapting to international level as ‘like a duck to water.’ The then coach, praised for introducing a new level of professionalism to the Irish set-up, certainly didn’t think the Soviet game as to big for Brady, and he was rewarded with one of our greatest wins.
17 years, 8 months, and 17 days. Robbie Keane‘s age when he made his senior debut in a friendly with the Czech Republic in Oloumouc in 1998. Damien Duff made his debut in the same game, at 19. Both products of Brian Kerr’s history-making under-age sides, both went on to become greats of the Irish game with Keane now captain of his country.
Jack Grealish is not Liam Brady, nor is he Keane or Duff. But he could be as good. Is that putting pressure on the player? Being a Premier League athlete is pressure enough, as is an FA Cup semi-final. Plenty of teenage players have been gambled on by international managers. Neymar made his Brazil debut at 18, scoring in a friendly against the USA. In England, rapidly rising star Raheem Sterling may be at the centre of controversy owing to stalled contract talks with Liverpool and some questionable off-the-field behaviour but it hasn’t stopped the legendary Zinedine Zidane from publicly stating he wants the player, turned 20 last December, recruited to Real Madrid. It also hasn’t deterred the British press from talking up their emerging talent, who made his England bow aged 17, the youngest ever Liverpool international, and played at the 2014 World Cup.
In Germany, Pep Guardiola is dealing with an injury crisis at Bayern Munich but his side marches relentlessly towards the Bundesliga title, with 18-year-old Gianluca Gaudino playing his part in their latest win at Hoffenheim. In the same league, 19-year-old Leroy Sane scored a wonder goal last weekend as Schalke resurrected a late Champions League charge. Eliminated narrowly by Real Madrid in the last 16, Sane’s goal against the La Liga giants was voted best of the round, a competition his teammate 19-year-old Max Meyer also starred in. At Leverkusen, Croatia’s young player of the year Tin Jedvaj is a mainstay in a team likely to secure Champions League football again next season. Europe’s premier club competition wasn’t too big for these talents.
In Ireland, we do things differently, it seems. Jack Grealish has played underage for the Republic since Under 15 and is the current U21 player of the year. Robbie Brady, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, Glenn Whelan, and Steven Reid are just some of the recent winners of that title who have made, or are making, meaningful contributions to the Irish senior team. At the awards ceremony in Dublin last March, the Aston Villa player apparently put an end to his self-imposed international exile to say he hoped to be available for selection next season having wanted to establish himself at Villa Park. Last weekend’s display in the the FA Cup semi-final victory over Liverpool has announced his arrival in a big way. He’s made 18 appearances for the Villans this season, just two in the starting line-up, but is now on his way to a cup final.
Of course at just 19, many say he has a slight build, but he’s equipped himself well to date, both in the Premier League and playing international football above his age-level. With his socks rolled low around his shin-pads, Grealish looks even more susceptible to rash challenges. But he doesn’t lack self belief evidenced by the reason behind the style.
“It’s a superstition that I’ve done all my life and I’m going to keep it that way. A few referees have tried telling me but I’ve got to keep it like that,’ Grealish said. ‘I haven’t had a kick on my shin yet and hopefully not any time soon.’ According to reports, he even wears children’s sized shin-pads underneath, and it’s this child-like abandon with which he plays that is winning him more admirers by the day, including the England U-21 national team manager Gareth Southgate.
Irish boss Martin O’Neill has consistently said he doesn’t want to put pressure on Grealish but pressure may be inevitable if it’s coming from the Three Lions camp. One English paper is already describing the outcome of the tug-of-war as ’50-50′ even though those remarks in Dublin earlier this year suggest he is ready to make himself available for next season. Recent comments from Villa teammate Shay Given and the player’s own father have muddied the water again.
The Premier League finishes in a matter of weeks while Ireland are in the crucial final stretch of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until September, and as Martin O’Neill himself has stated, if we don’t beat Scotland and our hopes end, neither will he. With massive games to come, maybe it’s time to play a wildcard.
Grealish could well be on the plane to France next summer if he continues his current rate of progress, but in what colours? O’Neill thinks the massive qualifier with Scotland is too big for the him but with the FA circling, not making our play for Grealish now may be too big a risk. Given our recruitment of Northern Irish players, we could hardly cry if the star switched to England, but young as he is, Grealish has plenty of teenage heroes in green whose footsteps he could follow.
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