Jack Grealish knew what was coming. The routine has long been drummed into his shins. Burst, touch, brace. There were 16 minutes on the clock during England’s 1-0 friendly win against Austria on Wednesday night and when Jesse Lingard played the pass slightly in front of him, Grealish was not the favourite to get there first.
Then he was. Grealish’s acceleration is explosive and with the Austria right-back, Stefan Lainer, lunging in, he prepared himself to absorb the contact. “That one really, really hurt,” Grealish says. “It went on to my shin where I’ve been quite sore.”
No Premier League player has been fouled as much and as often as the Aston Villa midfielder over the past two seasons. It is not even close. It has happened to him 277 times – every 19.6 minutes. Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha is next on the list with 208 fouls against – every 28.3 minutes.
Grealish is only just back from a three-month lay-off with shin trouble; he returned for Villa as a substitute against Everton on 13 May. He says it was not shin splints. “I’ve not actually done the research on shin splints. It’s just a little bit of stress that I had on my shin. I’ve seen numerous people about it now.”
Here’s a thought. Could it be the result of him being kicked all the time? The risks are obvious. Grealish says he has developed a knack for riding challenges but, if he gets it wrong or the tackle is too heavy, the consequences stand to be grave.
He does not think about that. Grealish points out that Trent Alexander-Arnold’s thigh injury, which has now ruled him out of the Euros, came after a routine clearance. When it’s your time, it’s your time. “With the way I play, I’m going to get kicked all the time and I can’t be running with the ball and thinking at the back of my head: ‘If I get kicked here, I’m one kick away [from being out].’”
Grealish takes pleasure in the pain; he sees a clear purpose, especially with England. The 25-year-old’s ability to penetrate into dangerous areas and win free-kicks could be decisive at Euro 2020. Everyone remembers how Gareth Southgate’s team made capital from set pieces at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“Of course I take the kicks as a compliment – not so much for Villa because we haven’t got that many good free-kick takers,” Grealish says, with a smile. “But we’re blessed with them for England. The standard here when we do free-kicks after training is just unbelievable. So as long as I can keep getting as many fouls in and around the box …
Jack Grealish says he has developed a really strong understanding with Harry Kane. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/The FA/Getty Images
“Martin O’Neill [the Villa manager between 2006-10] said to me when I was younger: ‘You never, ever want to get kicked in your own half because there’s no point, you can’t do anything there. Try and get kicked around the edge of the box or in the box as much as possible.’ I was a bit young back then and I thought: ‘Ah, OK.’ But now, obviously, I understand why. I’ll take the kicks to help my team, definitely.”
Wednesday was special for Grealish: his sixth cap but the first time he had played a full international in front of fans, with 8,000 inside Middlesbrough’s Riverside. It was a taster of what lies ahead and a reminder of how the team united the nation during the last World Cup, even if it was depressing to hear some supporters boo as the players took a pre-match knee to highlight the fight against racism.
Grealish had lost the Championship play-off final with Villa against Fulham before the Russia World Cup and he enjoyed the tournament as a fan. To be involved now as a player – his No 1 pre-season target – fills him with excitement.
“I went to Marbella and Ibiza and I remember that whole summer [of 2018], watching all of the games,” Grealish says. “It was as if Gareth and the lads brought the whole nation together just from the way they played at that World Cup.
“I said to somebody after the Austria game: ‘It feels nice to be playing in a stadium with England fans who support different clubs but they’re there supporting you.’ It was the first time I’d ever done it and I absolutely loved it. It gave me goosebumps when I was singing the national anthem.”
And so with the iconic No 7 on his back for the finals, Grealish has started to dream, possibly about making a difference from the No 10 position, where Southgate used him against Austria.
“I love that No 10 role,” Grealish says. “I’ll play anywhere, off the left or right, but that No 10 … I don’t think there is anyone better in the world to play with in front of you than Harry Kane. I feel we have a good connection in training and in games. I just go out there to try to perform and try to create that one piece of magic.”
It is a magic synonymous with previous wearers of the No 7 shirt, including David Beckham, a player Grealish looked up to. “He had a lot of great moments but the free-kick against Greece to send England to the 2002 World Cup stands out,” Grealish says.
Back to free-kicks. Their importance cannot be overstated. Grealish will put his body on the line to win them.
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