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Kenny Cunningham is wrong -- Jack Grealish deserves time to make up his mind

The Aston Villa youngster turned down Martin O’Neill’s offer of a place in the Ireland squad yesterday.

Jack Grealish has been in fine form for Aston Villa in recent weeks.
Jack Grealish has been in fine form for Aston Villa in recent weeks.

JACK GREALISH HAS had to put up with a lot lately.

Yesterday, during the Ireland squad announcement, manager Martin O’Neill confirmed that the 19-year-old had turned down a place in the squad.

The decision prompted merciless abuse from Irish supporters on Twitter and led some critics to suggest that they believe the player had privately ruled out joining up with the Ireland set-up, and was ultimately hoping to represent England at senior level.

However, Grealish’s father, Kevin, denied these claims subsequently, telling reporters that he would have also rejected a similar offer from England coach Roy Hodgson, and explained that the player wanted to focus purely on his Aston Villa career for now.

Nevertheless, the starlet’s delaying tactics have led to some skepticism. In an article in The Sun, former international Tony Cascarino suggested the midfielder was basing his decision on finance, saying you can “see the pound signs” in Grealish’s eyes.

Similarly, on Off the Ball, another ex-Ireland player, Kenny Cunningham, said:

“I wouldn’t call him up again… This lad’s 19. You make a decision to play for your country with your heart, you don’t make it with your head. You don’t need nine or 10 months to mull over every potential permutation and the advantages and disadvantages of the choice that you make.”

Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll tweeted his agreement with Cunningham, while there are many fans who would echo these views.

On the other hand, there are some, including Eamon Dunphy, who sympathise with Grealish’s position, with the former Ireland player defending the Aston Villa man in an interview with RTÉ.

“The idea has been put around that Grealish and his father are keeping their options open to play for England. Well they are entitled to do that,” Dunphy said.

“If I had a young 19-year-old son, I’d be very keenly involved and anxious to protect him and make sure he makes the right decision.”

The latter argument seems more reasonable owing to a number of factors.

Although it is looking increasingly likely that the Birmingham-born Grealish will choose England over Ireland (at least, if the bookies’ odds are to be believed), both his father and Martin O’Neill have by no means ruled out him wearing a green shirt at senior level in the near future.

Therefore, what if he ultimately defies expectations and picks Ireland? By the logic of Cunningham et al, Martin O’Neill should reject the advances of one of the best young players in the Premier League and the most promising footballer to be in serious contention for the Irish team arguably since the emergence of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.

It would be nothing short of farcical and more than a little petty if the Irish side snubbed such an obvious asset purely because he wasn’t quick enough to profess his undying love for the country.

Most teenagers find it stressful to choose a college course — imagine the pressure Grealish is under by comparison, given the importance of the decision and the hype surrounding it.

Furthermore, the notion that he should follow his heart has been put forward, not just by Cunningham, but also by Villa boss Tim Sherwood. Yet those who claim that it’s a matter of Grealish deciding if he feels more Irish or English are guilty of judging the situation in an overly simplistic manner.

Very few people have first-hand knowledge of how it feels to have a dual nationality and thus, lack to the experience to understand the complexity of this predicament.

Clearly, most Irish fans would have loved to see Grealish feature in June’s vital Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland. Despite his tender years, he has started in Villa’s last five consecutive matches and helped them compete in what looks like being a winning battle against relegation. Such has been his impact that teammate Joe Cole has gone as far as to compare to him to recently named PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard.

Skeptics suggest the player’s ability has been exaggerated and perhaps that is true to a degree and of course, Grealish still has a long way to go to fulfil his undoubted potential. Nonetheless, anyone who has watched him up close of late will have noticed the midfielder boasts considerable natural talent, footballing intelligence and bravery — no current member of the Ireland, arguably apart from Wes Hoolahan, has shown an ability to constantly demand the ball and dictate play in the manner that the Villa midfielder has demonstrated in his brief career thus far.

Source: Javier Rodriguez/YouTube

And contrary to O’Neill’s previous claims, the Scotland match would not have been too big for Grealish — in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool, he showed a level of composure and maturity worthy of a footballer in his prime rather than one who was starting only his fifth-ever game at senior level for the club.

Consequently, it is important for Irish fans and critics to look at the issue from Grealish’s perspective and remove all selfish and emotional thoughts from the equation.

Everyone copes with pressure in different ways and there’s no obvious reason to suspect Grealish’s father is lying when he says he needs time to focus on his Villa duties, while Cascarino’s suggestion that the youngster is primarily concerned with the financial implications of this dilemma appears speculative at best.

What we are left with, once you wade through all the hype, is a talented teenager who has been suddenly thrust into the limelight and is probably a little intimidated by the intense pressure he has come under from all corners to promptly make a life-altering decision. Few of us know what it’s like to be in Grealish’s shoes, therefore it seems unfair to judge him by the kind of harsh standards he has been subjected to in recent days.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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