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Kicking on

It’s not just football talent (though it’s definitely that too) which has made Jack Grealish a star: his free spirit and style have also helped to take him to the next level. And not forgetting his calves... We caught up with the Manchester City star to discuss how he’s got this far – and where he’s headed next

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Caroline De Moaraes | PORTRAITS Michael Regan

Interview
“I actually don’t do anything,” says Jack Grealish. “You don’t do anything?” “No, nothing.” Under discussion, at the City Football Academy training facility, are the most famous calves in English football, those supersized specimens that emerge from a pair of rolled-down socks and dwarf the owner’s shinpads. A throwback look for a very 21st century footballer, the Manchester City and England winger with an Alice band in his hair, the No10 on his shirt and that £100m price tag on his shoulders.

Grealish will return to his transfer and its accompanying challenges later, but first things first: those calves. “It’s just something that runs in the family,” he explains. “My grandad always had big calves when he used to play football. But no, I don’t do any calf exercises or calf routines in the gym or anything. Honestly, it’s just something that I’ve had since I was young.” 

And the socks, which call to mind some 1970s maverick almost as much as his dribbling skills and wide grin? “I think I was about 14 or 15 and we were sponsored by Macron at [Aston] Villa, and the socks used to shrink in the wash. In training, obviously, I couldn’t get them over my calves because the socks were so small. So I started wearing them below my calves in training – and that season I ended up playing really well. So then I started wearing my socks beneath my calves in games as well. It was just something that stuck because I’d had such a good season.”

Footballers can be superstitious creatures, finding assurance in little habits amid the pressure swirls of professional sport. Something, you suspect, that Grealish will have appreciated more than ever this season, following the upheaval of leaving his boyhood club, Aston Villa, for Pep Guardiola’s English champions. Last August, a month before his 26th birthday, he swapped Birmingham for Manchester and became the most expensive English footballer ever. There were tears when he said goodbye at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground and his reflections today hint at a meld of emotions.

“It was a massive decision,” says Grealish, a boyhood season-ticket holder who grew up in Villa’s academy and spent seven years in the first team. “I’d been at Villa my whole life, since I was six – obviously growing up, playing for my boyhood club and captaining them. To leave was a difficult decision, I’ve said it plenty of times, but it was something I felt was right at the time. I think it was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone.”

“It was massive because, like I said, that’s all I’d ever known. I’d been living in Birmingham my whole life, playing for Aston Villa. I’d never left and walked into a new dressing room, apart from when I went on loan to Notts County when I was 17 [for the 2013/14 season].

“It’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be in terms of on the pitch, off the pitch, moving to a new city. It’s been different, but I knew that it was going to be like that. I think that’s what life’s all about – experiencing different things – and I’ve certainly done that.”

For the man whose legs inspired a 2022 calendar – “The Wonderful World of Jack Grealish’s Calves” – this has been a season for finding his feet. Eye-opening too. “When I came here it was different, because at Villa and at Notts County, and also when I go away with the national team, you have the same culture, you have the same nationality; most of the lads are English. And here there are only, what, four or five of us who are English.”

He marvels, in his Brummie brogue, at the linguistic acrobatics of his Brazilian team-mates Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. “Gabi and Dinho, I’m sure they can speak three or four languages each, so it’s unbelievable. It’s something I’d absolutely love to do, but I don’t think I’ve got the patience for it.”

Maybe, but he has needed patience when it comes to the football lessons he is learning under Pep Guardiola. There is a list of players who have required a season to adjust fully to Guardiola’s way of working; Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and João Cancelo spring to mind. By the March international break, Grealish had already made more Premier League starts (17) than any of that trio managed in their first City seasons. Yet a player accustomed to having a licence to roam from his left-flank berth under Dean Smith at Aston Villa has had to adjust to less freedom now he is no longer the main man; he’s become a cog in a meticulously managed machine.

He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 
“Scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me”

 “You know, I’ve had my injuries this season,” he notes, though his biggest frustration is related to the field. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I’d love to have scored more and assisted more this season, but I feel like I’ve been playing well, even when I haven’t been scoring or assisting.” In fairness, at the time of writing, he ranks fifth in the Premier League for key passes per 90 minutes (2.4) according to Opta. Moreover, the view of his manager is that “there are players that make the team play good and are not in the statistics”. Addressing the matter in February, Guardiola said: “Players today play for the statistics, but this is the biggest mistake they can do.”

In return, Grealish has only words of praise for Guardiola. “He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s just an addict to football. He just loves football. As soon as he steps foot in the building, everything’s just about football, everything’s just for the next game. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s a brilliant manager who helps the team so much. I’ve said at times this season that he’s won games by himself, with the way he’s set us up and the tactics he’s given us, and we’ve gone out there and done the job.”

As well as footballing lessons, Grealish is still gaining knowledge elsewhere – not least about how to handle football’s steep emotional swings. He confesses that this has been a challenge for him, first as the boy wonder and later captain at Villa, now as the £100m man at City. He is still learning “just to cope with the good times and cope with the bad times. I think in football, it’s such a rollercoaster ride; you know, you’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated. 

“You don’t really want to speak to anyone,” he adds. “Then, when you win and you score, you’re over the moon. You want to go out, you want to go and see friends, family. And for now, for me, it’s just a thing of not getting too high when you have the highs, and not getting too low when you have the lows. When stuff isn’t going so well, you need to find a balance of making sure you’re alright and you’re in the right headspace. And then, when things are going well, not get too high over it.”

“You’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated” 

He admits that he is trying to practise what he preaches. “I’m still learning that now myself. I’m still trying to deal with when you have a bad game or you get beat in a game. I’m still trying to come to terms with it, because I’ll admit I’m not the best at it. I go home, I don’t really want to speak to anyone, I don’t really want to do anything if I’ve had a bad game or whatever. I don’t go on social media or anything. 

“And then sometimes, when I’ve scored or when we’re doing well, I have a thing where I’m too high and too happy. Hopefully, in the next few years, I can keep on improving with that.”

Grealish goes on to cite the advice given him by one of his former academy coaches at Villa, Steve Burns. “He always used to say, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ Especially as time goes on, I think there’s such a mental side to football now, where you need to be in the right mindset. And you know, pressure is a big thing in football, especially for me coming here for the price tag that I came for, and being English; I think the media try and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders. So like I said, like that coach said to me, pressure is a privilege. And that’s how I just try and see it.”

The “being English” bit is worth dwelling on. The spotlight burned on Grealish last summer when he emerged as a Wembley crowd favourite during England’s run to the EURO 2020 final. He began only one game – the final group fixture against Czech Republic, when he provided the cross for Raheem Sterling’s winning goal – yet chants of “Super Jackie Grealish” filled the Wembley air even before he came on in others. His biggest impact came in the round of 16 tie against Germany, when his desire to run at defenders opened up space. Moreover, it was a Grealish pass that freed Luke Shaw to cross for Sterling’s breakthrough goal, before his cross that teed up Harry Kane for the second.

It was a golden summer all in all, notwithstanding the eventual silver medal. “Have you ever heard the quote that you don’t realise how big or how good something is until it’s gone? That’s the case with me. Now I look back on it and I swear, it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life, being there for about six or seven weeks. England were so good to us, they did everything to make us feel at home at our hotel and at our camp. I absolutely loved it. It was a shame that we couldn’t get over the last hurdle in the final and losing on penalties is the worst way to lose. It’s the best way to win, but the worst way to lose. There are a few regrets, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country. I think it was a time that brought the whole country together.” 

And his own popularity? The sense he conveys of a footballing free spirit certainly helps. So too the cheeky smile and characteristically honest and open-hearted musings in media interviews (which extended last summer to revealing the secret behind those glossy locks: Moroccan hair oil). 

“It was obviously nice to have the whole country rooting for us as a team,” he says. “Even for myself – I’ve seen stuff on social media and it was nice to have that support from everyone. But for us as a team it was just unbelievable to have the whole country behind us. It was a summer that I’ll never ever forget and after leaving that summer, it makes me want to strive for more and have that feeling again. So hopefully we can.”

“It was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone”

First, though, is the quest for honours with City. At the time of writing, Guardiola’s side are pursuing trophies on three fronts. That’s another new experience for the 26-year-old, who is certainly savouring his first season of Champions League football.

He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 

“I didn’t really think anything of it at the time but then, when I was standing there, I just thought back to when he said it, and I was like ‘No, this is unbelievable,’ listening to that anthem. It’s such an iconic anthem as well. Then to have the start that I did, scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me.”

That was in September’s 6-3 home win over Leipzig, an explosive start as last season’s runners-up set about trying to go one step further. The hope now is for an even more spectacular conclusion. 

“Most of the lads here have won everything, numerous times as well, so I think that’s the one that everyone wants this year,” says a man still seeking his first senior honours. “It’s brilliant if we can go and win every competition that we’re in, but that being one that we haven’t won yet, that’s what we have our eyes on.” 

The words of a man now seeking the biggest high that club football can offer. 

Music
Stormzy's support act

The night that Jack Grealish went straight from the pitch to the stage

“I just listen to the most random music: R&B, hip hop, house music, ’80s, ’90’s,” says Jack Grealish of his musical tastes. “I’d say that R&B and hip hop are probably what I listen to most – the likes of Drake, Travis Scott, Lil’ Baby.”

Yet he has Stormzy to thank for his best live music experience. It came last August at Leeds Festival, when the British rapper invited him on stage just hours after he had helped City beat Arsenal 5-0. Explaining his relationship with the musician, Grealish says: “When Stormzy first came onto the scene, I tweeted him because I’d seen him online somewhere, I can’t remember where. I tweeted him saying something like ‘Stormzy is the next up-and-coming [artist]’, he replied and we started following each other. This is when he had hardly any followers; obviously, I didn’t have a lot myself either. And since then, we’ve kept in touch. 

“At Leeds Festival, we were just backstage watching Jack Harlow and he was there and said, ‘Come over to my set in a bit.’ Then I went over and I just ended up on stage with him! It was a bit of a blur, actually. There were so many people there. But it was a great experience.”

Grealish will return to his transfer and its accompanying challenges later, but first things first: those calves. “It’s just something that runs in the family,” he explains. “My grandad always had big calves when he used to play football. But no, I don’t do any calf exercises or calf routines in the gym or anything. Honestly, it’s just something that I’ve had since I was young.” 

And the socks, which call to mind some 1970s maverick almost as much as his dribbling skills and wide grin? “I think I was about 14 or 15 and we were sponsored by Macron at [Aston] Villa, and the socks used to shrink in the wash. In training, obviously, I couldn’t get them over my calves because the socks were so small. So I started wearing them below my calves in training – and that season I ended up playing really well. So then I started wearing my socks beneath my calves in games as well. It was just something that stuck because I’d had such a good season.”

Footballers can be superstitious creatures, finding assurance in little habits amid the pressure swirls of professional sport. Something, you suspect, that Grealish will have appreciated more than ever this season, following the upheaval of leaving his boyhood club, Aston Villa, for Pep Guardiola’s English champions. Last August, a month before his 26th birthday, he swapped Birmingham for Manchester and became the most expensive English footballer ever. There were tears when he said goodbye at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground and his reflections today hint at a meld of emotions.

“It was a massive decision,” says Grealish, a boyhood season-ticket holder who grew up in Villa’s academy and spent seven years in the first team. “I’d been at Villa my whole life, since I was six – obviously growing up, playing for my boyhood club and captaining them. To leave was a difficult decision, I’ve said it plenty of times, but it was something I felt was right at the time. I think it was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone.”

“It was massive because, like I said, that’s all I’d ever known. I’d been living in Birmingham my whole life, playing for Aston Villa. I’d never left and walked into a new dressing room, apart from when I went on loan to Notts County when I was 17 [for the 2013/14 season].

“It’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be in terms of on the pitch, off the pitch, moving to a new city. It’s been different, but I knew that it was going to be like that. I think that’s what life’s all about – experiencing different things – and I’ve certainly done that.”

For the man whose legs inspired a 2022 calendar – “The Wonderful World of Jack Grealish’s Calves” – this has been a season for finding his feet. Eye-opening too. “When I came here it was different, because at Villa and at Notts County, and also when I go away with the national team, you have the same culture, you have the same nationality; most of the lads are English. And here there are only, what, four or five of us who are English.”

He marvels, in his Brummie brogue, at the linguistic acrobatics of his Brazilian team-mates Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. “Gabi and Dinho, I’m sure they can speak three or four languages each, so it’s unbelievable. It’s something I’d absolutely love to do, but I don’t think I’ve got the patience for it.”

Maybe, but he has needed patience when it comes to the football lessons he is learning under Pep Guardiola. There is a list of players who have required a season to adjust fully to Guardiola’s way of working; Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and João Cancelo spring to mind. By the March international break, Grealish had already made more Premier League starts (17) than any of that trio managed in their first City seasons. Yet a player accustomed to having a licence to roam from his left-flank berth under Dean Smith at Aston Villa has had to adjust to less freedom now he is no longer the main man; he’s become a cog in a meticulously managed machine.

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He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 
“Scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me”

 “You know, I’ve had my injuries this season,” he notes, though his biggest frustration is related to the field. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I’d love to have scored more and assisted more this season, but I feel like I’ve been playing well, even when I haven’t been scoring or assisting.” In fairness, at the time of writing, he ranks fifth in the Premier League for key passes per 90 minutes (2.4) according to Opta. Moreover, the view of his manager is that “there are players that make the team play good and are not in the statistics”. Addressing the matter in February, Guardiola said: “Players today play for the statistics, but this is the biggest mistake they can do.”

In return, Grealish has only words of praise for Guardiola. “He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s just an addict to football. He just loves football. As soon as he steps foot in the building, everything’s just about football, everything’s just for the next game. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s a brilliant manager who helps the team so much. I’ve said at times this season that he’s won games by himself, with the way he’s set us up and the tactics he’s given us, and we’ve gone out there and done the job.”

As well as footballing lessons, Grealish is still gaining knowledge elsewhere – not least about how to handle football’s steep emotional swings. He confesses that this has been a challenge for him, first as the boy wonder and later captain at Villa, now as the £100m man at City. He is still learning “just to cope with the good times and cope with the bad times. I think in football, it’s such a rollercoaster ride; you know, you’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated. 

“You don’t really want to speak to anyone,” he adds. “Then, when you win and you score, you’re over the moon. You want to go out, you want to go and see friends, family. And for now, for me, it’s just a thing of not getting too high when you have the highs, and not getting too low when you have the lows. When stuff isn’t going so well, you need to find a balance of making sure you’re alright and you’re in the right headspace. And then, when things are going well, not get too high over it.”

“You’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated” 

He admits that he is trying to practise what he preaches. “I’m still learning that now myself. I’m still trying to deal with when you have a bad game or you get beat in a game. I’m still trying to come to terms with it, because I’ll admit I’m not the best at it. I go home, I don’t really want to speak to anyone, I don’t really want to do anything if I’ve had a bad game or whatever. I don’t go on social media or anything. 

“And then sometimes, when I’ve scored or when we’re doing well, I have a thing where I’m too high and too happy. Hopefully, in the next few years, I can keep on improving with that.”

Grealish goes on to cite the advice given him by one of his former academy coaches at Villa, Steve Burns. “He always used to say, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ Especially as time goes on, I think there’s such a mental side to football now, where you need to be in the right mindset. And you know, pressure is a big thing in football, especially for me coming here for the price tag that I came for, and being English; I think the media try and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders. So like I said, like that coach said to me, pressure is a privilege. And that’s how I just try and see it.”

The “being English” bit is worth dwelling on. The spotlight burned on Grealish last summer when he emerged as a Wembley crowd favourite during England’s run to the EURO 2020 final. He began only one game – the final group fixture against Czech Republic, when he provided the cross for Raheem Sterling’s winning goal – yet chants of “Super Jackie Grealish” filled the Wembley air even before he came on in others. His biggest impact came in the round of 16 tie against Germany, when his desire to run at defenders opened up space. Moreover, it was a Grealish pass that freed Luke Shaw to cross for Sterling’s breakthrough goal, before his cross that teed up Harry Kane for the second.

It was a golden summer all in all, notwithstanding the eventual silver medal. “Have you ever heard the quote that you don’t realise how big or how good something is until it’s gone? That’s the case with me. Now I look back on it and I swear, it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life, being there for about six or seven weeks. England were so good to us, they did everything to make us feel at home at our hotel and at our camp. I absolutely loved it. It was a shame that we couldn’t get over the last hurdle in the final and losing on penalties is the worst way to lose. It’s the best way to win, but the worst way to lose. There are a few regrets, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country. I think it was a time that brought the whole country together.” 

And his own popularity? The sense he conveys of a footballing free spirit certainly helps. So too the cheeky smile and characteristically honest and open-hearted musings in media interviews (which extended last summer to revealing the secret behind those glossy locks: Moroccan hair oil). 

“It was obviously nice to have the whole country rooting for us as a team,” he says. “Even for myself – I’ve seen stuff on social media and it was nice to have that support from everyone. But for us as a team it was just unbelievable to have the whole country behind us. It was a summer that I’ll never ever forget and after leaving that summer, it makes me want to strive for more and have that feeling again. So hopefully we can.”

“It was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone”

First, though, is the quest for honours with City. At the time of writing, Guardiola’s side are pursuing trophies on three fronts. That’s another new experience for the 26-year-old, who is certainly savouring his first season of Champions League football.

He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 

“I didn’t really think anything of it at the time but then, when I was standing there, I just thought back to when he said it, and I was like ‘No, this is unbelievable,’ listening to that anthem. It’s such an iconic anthem as well. Then to have the start that I did, scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me.”

That was in September’s 6-3 home win over Leipzig, an explosive start as last season’s runners-up set about trying to go one step further. The hope now is for an even more spectacular conclusion. 

“Most of the lads here have won everything, numerous times as well, so I think that’s the one that everyone wants this year,” says a man still seeking his first senior honours. “It’s brilliant if we can go and win every competition that we’re in, but that being one that we haven’t won yet, that’s what we have our eyes on.” 

The words of a man now seeking the biggest high that club football can offer. 

Music
Stormzy's support act

The night that Jack Grealish went straight from the pitch to the stage

“I just listen to the most random music: R&B, hip hop, house music, ’80s, ’90’s,” says Jack Grealish of his musical tastes. “I’d say that R&B and hip hop are probably what I listen to most – the likes of Drake, Travis Scott, Lil’ Baby.”

Yet he has Stormzy to thank for his best live music experience. It came last August at Leeds Festival, when the British rapper invited him on stage just hours after he had helped City beat Arsenal 5-0. Explaining his relationship with the musician, Grealish says: “When Stormzy first came onto the scene, I tweeted him because I’d seen him online somewhere, I can’t remember where. I tweeted him saying something like ‘Stormzy is the next up-and-coming [artist]’, he replied and we started following each other. This is when he had hardly any followers; obviously, I didn’t have a lot myself either. And since then, we’ve kept in touch. 

“At Leeds Festival, we were just backstage watching Jack Harlow and he was there and said, ‘Come over to my set in a bit.’ Then I went over and I just ended up on stage with him! It was a bit of a blur, actually. There were so many people there. But it was a great experience.”

Grealish will return to his transfer and its accompanying challenges later, but first things first: those calves. “It’s just something that runs in the family,” he explains. “My grandad always had big calves when he used to play football. But no, I don’t do any calf exercises or calf routines in the gym or anything. Honestly, it’s just something that I’ve had since I was young.” 

And the socks, which call to mind some 1970s maverick almost as much as his dribbling skills and wide grin? “I think I was about 14 or 15 and we were sponsored by Macron at [Aston] Villa, and the socks used to shrink in the wash. In training, obviously, I couldn’t get them over my calves because the socks were so small. So I started wearing them below my calves in training – and that season I ended up playing really well. So then I started wearing my socks beneath my calves in games as well. It was just something that stuck because I’d had such a good season.”

Footballers can be superstitious creatures, finding assurance in little habits amid the pressure swirls of professional sport. Something, you suspect, that Grealish will have appreciated more than ever this season, following the upheaval of leaving his boyhood club, Aston Villa, for Pep Guardiola’s English champions. Last August, a month before his 26th birthday, he swapped Birmingham for Manchester and became the most expensive English footballer ever. There were tears when he said goodbye at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground and his reflections today hint at a meld of emotions.

“It was a massive decision,” says Grealish, a boyhood season-ticket holder who grew up in Villa’s academy and spent seven years in the first team. “I’d been at Villa my whole life, since I was six – obviously growing up, playing for my boyhood club and captaining them. To leave was a difficult decision, I’ve said it plenty of times, but it was something I felt was right at the time. I think it was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone.”

“It was massive because, like I said, that’s all I’d ever known. I’d been living in Birmingham my whole life, playing for Aston Villa. I’d never left and walked into a new dressing room, apart from when I went on loan to Notts County when I was 17 [for the 2013/14 season].

“It’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be in terms of on the pitch, off the pitch, moving to a new city. It’s been different, but I knew that it was going to be like that. I think that’s what life’s all about – experiencing different things – and I’ve certainly done that.”

For the man whose legs inspired a 2022 calendar – “The Wonderful World of Jack Grealish’s Calves” – this has been a season for finding his feet. Eye-opening too. “When I came here it was different, because at Villa and at Notts County, and also when I go away with the national team, you have the same culture, you have the same nationality; most of the lads are English. And here there are only, what, four or five of us who are English.”

He marvels, in his Brummie brogue, at the linguistic acrobatics of his Brazilian team-mates Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. “Gabi and Dinho, I’m sure they can speak three or four languages each, so it’s unbelievable. It’s something I’d absolutely love to do, but I don’t think I’ve got the patience for it.”

Maybe, but he has needed patience when it comes to the football lessons he is learning under Pep Guardiola. There is a list of players who have required a season to adjust fully to Guardiola’s way of working; Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and João Cancelo spring to mind. By the March international break, Grealish had already made more Premier League starts (17) than any of that trio managed in their first City seasons. Yet a player accustomed to having a licence to roam from his left-flank berth under Dean Smith at Aston Villa has had to adjust to less freedom now he is no longer the main man; he’s become a cog in a meticulously managed machine.

He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 
“Scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me”

 “You know, I’ve had my injuries this season,” he notes, though his biggest frustration is related to the field. “I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I’d love to have scored more and assisted more this season, but I feel like I’ve been playing well, even when I haven’t been scoring or assisting.” In fairness, at the time of writing, he ranks fifth in the Premier League for key passes per 90 minutes (2.4) according to Opta. Moreover, the view of his manager is that “there are players that make the team play good and are not in the statistics”. Addressing the matter in February, Guardiola said: “Players today play for the statistics, but this is the biggest mistake they can do.”

In return, Grealish has only words of praise for Guardiola. “He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s just an addict to football. He just loves football. As soon as he steps foot in the building, everything’s just about football, everything’s just for the next game. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s a brilliant manager who helps the team so much. I’ve said at times this season that he’s won games by himself, with the way he’s set us up and the tactics he’s given us, and we’ve gone out there and done the job.”

As well as footballing lessons, Grealish is still gaining knowledge elsewhere – not least about how to handle football’s steep emotional swings. He confesses that this has been a challenge for him, first as the boy wonder and later captain at Villa, now as the £100m man at City. He is still learning “just to cope with the good times and cope with the bad times. I think in football, it’s such a rollercoaster ride; you know, you’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated. 

“You don’t really want to speak to anyone,” he adds. “Then, when you win and you score, you’re over the moon. You want to go out, you want to go and see friends, family. And for now, for me, it’s just a thing of not getting too high when you have the highs, and not getting too low when you have the lows. When stuff isn’t going so well, you need to find a balance of making sure you’re alright and you’re in the right headspace. And then, when things are going well, not get too high over it.”

“You’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated” 

He admits that he is trying to practise what he preaches. “I’m still learning that now myself. I’m still trying to deal with when you have a bad game or you get beat in a game. I’m still trying to come to terms with it, because I’ll admit I’m not the best at it. I go home, I don’t really want to speak to anyone, I don’t really want to do anything if I’ve had a bad game or whatever. I don’t go on social media or anything. 

“And then sometimes, when I’ve scored or when we’re doing well, I have a thing where I’m too high and too happy. Hopefully, in the next few years, I can keep on improving with that.”

Grealish goes on to cite the advice given him by one of his former academy coaches at Villa, Steve Burns. “He always used to say, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ Especially as time goes on, I think there’s such a mental side to football now, where you need to be in the right mindset. And you know, pressure is a big thing in football, especially for me coming here for the price tag that I came for, and being English; I think the media try and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders. So like I said, like that coach said to me, pressure is a privilege. And that’s how I just try and see it.”

The “being English” bit is worth dwelling on. The spotlight burned on Grealish last summer when he emerged as a Wembley crowd favourite during England’s run to the EURO 2020 final. He began only one game – the final group fixture against Czech Republic, when he provided the cross for Raheem Sterling’s winning goal – yet chants of “Super Jackie Grealish” filled the Wembley air even before he came on in others. His biggest impact came in the round of 16 tie against Germany, when his desire to run at defenders opened up space. Moreover, it was a Grealish pass that freed Luke Shaw to cross for Sterling’s breakthrough goal, before his cross that teed up Harry Kane for the second.

It was a golden summer all in all, notwithstanding the eventual silver medal. “Have you ever heard the quote that you don’t realise how big or how good something is until it’s gone? That’s the case with me. Now I look back on it and I swear, it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life, being there for about six or seven weeks. England were so good to us, they did everything to make us feel at home at our hotel and at our camp. I absolutely loved it. It was a shame that we couldn’t get over the last hurdle in the final and losing on penalties is the worst way to lose. It’s the best way to win, but the worst way to lose. There are a few regrets, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country. I think it was a time that brought the whole country together.” 

And his own popularity? The sense he conveys of a footballing free spirit certainly helps. So too the cheeky smile and characteristically honest and open-hearted musings in media interviews (which extended last summer to revealing the secret behind those glossy locks: Moroccan hair oil). 

“It was obviously nice to have the whole country rooting for us as a team,” he says. “Even for myself – I’ve seen stuff on social media and it was nice to have that support from everyone. But for us as a team it was just unbelievable to have the whole country behind us. It was a summer that I’ll never ever forget and after leaving that summer, it makes me want to strive for more and have that feeling again. So hopefully we can.”

“It was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone”

First, though, is the quest for honours with City. At the time of writing, Guardiola’s side are pursuing trophies on three fronts. That’s another new experience for the 26-year-old, who is certainly savouring his first season of Champions League football.

He recounts a conversation with John Terry, formerly a member of the coaching staff at Villa. “I always remember JT said to me, ‘Wait until you’re standing up and you’re hearing the Champions League anthem,’ And I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ 

“I didn’t really think anything of it at the time but then, when I was standing there, I just thought back to when he said it, and I was like ‘No, this is unbelievable,’ listening to that anthem. It’s such an iconic anthem as well. Then to have the start that I did, scoring and assisting in the same game, on my Champions League debut, was a dream for me.”

That was in September’s 6-3 home win over Leipzig, an explosive start as last season’s runners-up set about trying to go one step further. The hope now is for an even more spectacular conclusion. 

“Most of the lads here have won everything, numerous times as well, so I think that’s the one that everyone wants this year,” says a man still seeking his first senior honours. “It’s brilliant if we can go and win every competition that we’re in, but that being one that we haven’t won yet, that’s what we have our eyes on.” 

The words of a man now seeking the biggest high that club football can offer. 

Music
Stormzy's support act

The night that Jack Grealish went straight from the pitch to the stage

“I just listen to the most random music: R&B, hip hop, house music, ’80s, ’90’s,” says Jack Grealish of his musical tastes. “I’d say that R&B and hip hop are probably what I listen to most – the likes of Drake, Travis Scott, Lil’ Baby.”

Yet he has Stormzy to thank for his best live music experience. It came last August at Leeds Festival, when the British rapper invited him on stage just hours after he had helped City beat Arsenal 5-0. Explaining his relationship with the musician, Grealish says: “When Stormzy first came onto the scene, I tweeted him because I’d seen him online somewhere, I can’t remember where. I tweeted him saying something like ‘Stormzy is the next up-and-coming [artist]’, he replied and we started following each other. This is when he had hardly any followers; obviously, I didn’t have a lot myself either. And since then, we’ve kept in touch. 

“At Leeds Festival, we were just backstage watching Jack Harlow and he was there and said, ‘Come over to my set in a bit.’ Then I went over and I just ended up on stage with him! It was a bit of a blur, actually. There were so many people there. But it was a great experience.”

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