Jack Grealish (r) played for the Republic of Ireland at U17, U18 and U21 level before electing to represent England
Jack Grealish was the central figure in a battle of loyalties between the Republic of Ireland and England before finally settling on his international future – now is the time for Gareth Southgate to give him the chance to show what all the fuss was about.
It was as far back as September 2015 when Grealish confirmed he wanted to represent England and since then a number of factors, including dropping into the Championship with Aston Villa, have kept him on the margins of Southgate’s plans.
The 24-year-old was the key figure in Villa’s return to the Premier League last season, will be their biggest hope of staying there in this campaign, and in the Carabao Cup semi-final was their driving force as they reached Wembley at Leicester City’s expense.
This fixture was inevitably billed as the battle between two great talents in Grealish and Leicester City’s James Maddison, who was compared in colourful, unfavourable terms throughout by the Villa loyalists on the Holte End.
Praise of Grealish must not be misconstrued as criticism of Maddison, who could have scored twice in the first half only to be thwarted by Villa goalkeeper Orland Nyland’s heroics. He could have been the Foxes’ hero and on his way to Wembley had it not been for the brilliance of the 29-year-old Norwegian.
Grealish, however, had the most significant influence overall. He drags this Villa team with him as a creator and also the player they look to as their pressure release valve, such is his strength in possession.
Villa broke out of a period of sustained Leicester pressure to score after 12 minutes, Grealish’s imaginative flick playing in Matt Targett to score from the angle.
Grealish patrolled the left for long periods then switched to the right, where he delivered the most inviting cross which Villa’s £8.5m new boy Mbwana Samatta somehow failed to even get a touch to standing only six yards out.
He was the player Villa’s fans, who raced on to the turf in ecstasy at the final whistle, looked to amid the celebrations and he will assume the same status when they face an arduous Carabao Cup final task, most likely against Manchester City, at Wembley on 1 March.
Grealish’s impact this season must surely convince Southgate he is worth at least a place in England’s squad, and possibly a first full cap, when he names his squad for the home friendlies against Italy and Denmark at the end of March.
Maddison already has his place in England’s plans, although it appears he still has to fully convince Southgate, but Grealish has produced enough to earn an opportunity, irrespective of the Leicester City player’s claims.
He is the fulcrum of this Aston Villa team. So much of their hopes rest on him – as he proved amid the emotion and celebration of this semi-final win.
For Villa, it was another step on the road to redemption under manager Dean Smith.
This famous old club is back in the top flight where they and their fans believe they belong and will now be back contesting a domestic final.
Villa will probably cherish Premier League survival as much as a place in the Carabao Cup final, given that they currently occupy a perilous position in 16th place, two points off the relegation places with a visit to troubled Bournemouth, who are in the bottom three, this weekend.
The feel of this night – the drama, the celebrations, the anticipation of the big day at Wembley – sum up Aston Villa’s aspirations.
Yes, this season is about consolidation in the Premier League but a Wembley final is just the sort of garnish that raises confidence and will help them achieve that goal.
It is also a big moment for manager Smith, who has been questioned in the darker moments this season, but has overcome a highly regarded counterpart in Brendan Rodgers over two legs.
Smith’s team defended smartly and with resilience to earn a draw at the King Power Stadium, and while they relied on Nyland and Grealish here, Villa got the job done and for that the manager deserves huge credit.
Villa may have painted a loss here as a blessing in disguise and the opportunity to focus on Premier League business, but this win saw a great old ground come alive with emotion and celebrations.
And the jewel in Villa’s crown is Grealish, the home-grown hero wearing the armband for his boyhood club – he will relish the opportunity to lead them out at Wembley.
It should mark the start of a memorable month because Grealish has surely played his way into England plans and given himself the chance to force his way into Euro 2020 contention.