Jack Grealish mentions it as an after-thought, bringing it up in a matter-of-fact manner, cool Brummie tones somehow amplifying the nonchalance. “It was actually a weird one,” the Aston Villa captain says. “I had a fitness test on the day of the Liverpool game [last Sunday]. I hadn’t even trained for the two days before it because I had a sore hamstring. I didn’t expect to play the way I did.”
Grealish rolled his socks down, sauntered out, scored two, set three up, twisted the blood of the Liverpool defenders and drove his team to a wild 7-2 victory. He has carried the confidence on to international duty. Making his first England start in Thursday’s 3-0 friendly win over Wales at Wembley, he was the game’s outstanding performer, creating the opening goal for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and, more broadly, drifting into spaces, running with the ball, getting his team playing.
The 25-year-old says that he does not obsess about his diet; he does not work on those bulging calf muscles and he does not care where he plays. He just plays. And when everything clicks, as it has done so far this season, the sense of excitement and possibility is tangible.
England need a midfielder like Grealish, a player to break the lines, to get up the pitch, maybe to win a free-kick, to make something happen. The question is whether Gareth Southgate can accommodate him. The manager does not use a No 10 in his 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 systems and he has said that he does not see Grealish as a No 8. Which leaves him fighting it out for one of the wide forward spots, where England have genuine strength in Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.
Southgate played Grealish off the left in a 3-4-3 against Wales, in what was an inexperienced and experimental line-up. Although Sterling is injured, Sancho and Rashford hope to return for Sunday’s glamour Nations League tie against Belgium at Wembley.
“I had a long chat with the manager in the last camp,” Grealish says, with a nod towards the September internationals when he made his debut as a substitute in the 0-0 draw against Denmark. “He’s good for that, he lets you speak your mind. I said to him: ‘I see myself playing as No 8 for England, as No 10, as a left-winger or right-winger.’ Wherever I am on the pitch, I will play. I couldn’t care less where I play.
“There is so much talent in the wing positions and it will be difficult to get into those positions. I have full respect for those guys and the numbers they have got. But I also have respect for how much ability I have got. In the last two or three years, I have played half my games on the wing and half my games as a No 8 or No 10. I fully believe that I can do both going forward. I think the manager knows that now.”
Grealish does not appear to want for self-assurance but he can tell the story of when, aged 15, he passed out because of nerves at an England trial.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, I went to go to the toilet and my roommate, who was Diego Poyet, Gus Poyet’s son, heard a bang and then I just woke up in the bathroom,” Grealish says. “I had obviously collapsed. I didn’t want to go home the following day but England said they thought it was best that I did.”
Grealish went to play for Republic of Ireland at youth level – he qualified through his grandparents – but as he got older, in his own words and as he has said before: “I realised I am English.” He adds: “Everyone knows one of my long-term goals was to get into the England squad and play for England. Now that I am here, I want to cement my place. I was absolutely desperate to come here.”
Grealish talks about how he goes “with the flow,” how he tries “not to let nerves get to me” or become bogged down with anything. It is all about expression and being in the right place to show that – a little like it was for Paul Gascoigne, to whom he has drawn comparisons.
“I would love to be like Gazza,” Grealish says. “He played with such joy and that is what I want to do. One of the biggest compliments for people to say to you is that you make them happy watching football.”
A feature of the Wales game was how often Grealish was fouled but this is nothing new to him. Last season, he was fouled a Premier League high 177 times – Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha was next on 133 – and it is because he constantly demands possession and is prepared to risk it. He wants opponents to lunge in, he almost dares them to. In deeper areas, Southgate said that he saw him as a “matador” with the ball as his cloak.
“A few of the lads said: ‘We’ve never seen anyone get kicked as much as you’,” Grealish says. “But I enjoy it. Getting kicked means I’m doing something right.”
These are heady days for Grealish, with the Liverpool game, according to him, being one that “doesn’t come around often in your lifetime as a footballer, it was crazy.” He knows how good he can be. The quest now is for consistency.
“I’m capable of these types of performances,” Grealish says. “The aim is to do it every weekend like some of the players in this squad – Harry Kane, Raheem, Marcus. It is the standard these guys set. You only have to look at Harry Kane. He is first on the training pitch, he is first in the meetings. He is last off the training pitch, he is practising his finishing, free-kicks – every single day. No wonder he is one of the best strikers in the world. It makes you want to go back to Villa and set those standards.”