WHEN Jack Grealish swore on camera, he showed his real value to Manchester City. He’s priceless, a likeable lad serving a project where likeability will always be an issue, a vulnerable man among invulnerable machines.
Not that his performance against Real Madrid was vulnerable. On the contrary, the Englishman called a taxi for Dani Carvajal more times than a malfunctioning Grab app. He created his 35th chance in the Champions League campaign, the highest on record in a single season since the data was first compiled in 2003/04.
But he doesn’t quite sing from the same regimented hymn sheet at the Etihad. In his club’s cold, relentless pursuit for perfection, Grealish still echoes the opening lines of Oasis’ first single. He needs to be himself. He can’t be no one else. His employers should be delighted. City may be going Supersonic, but their cheeky chappie remains endearingly grounded.
Indeed, it’s hard to underestimate Grealish’s worth as a PR commodity, especially to a club so addicted to global domination they have turned the people’s game into a military expedition, a Blitzkrieg advance on billionaires. Like it? Hate it? They don’t care. They own the game.
But how can anyone seriously dislike Grealish? Standing before the cameras, hair band in place, bangs flopping either side of that cherubic smile, he’s still the funny one in class, making everyone giggle, including the teachers, against their better judgement. In his excitement, he swore. Of course he did. He was f****** buzzing. Just like you or I would be. He’s living every kid’s playground dream by behaving like a kid in the playground.
He danced past Carvajal, in a mismatch typically associated with the school captain and that clown with two left feet who only gets picked as part of the school’s fair rotation policy. But this was Manchester City against Real Madrid, Grealish against a seasoned Spanish international. And he toyed with Carvajal, a kitten pawing at a ball of wool, pushing it away and dragging it back, knowing that he owned possession. No one was taking his ball.
It was lovely to watch, when maybe it shouldn’t be. Or, at the very least, the Manchester City spectacle remains an internal struggle of sorts. Grealish represents the tackiest of experiments, a £100 million trinket among so many others, all piled together like a treasure hoard in an Indiana Jones movie. He’s a PR soldier in the battle for global goodwill, by any means necessary, no questions asked.
But questions are being asked, 115 of them in fact, i.e. the number of charges that Grealish’s employers face for allegedly breaching Premier League rules between 2009 and 2018. Only history will determine the validity of City’s ongoing quest for complete dominance, but nothing can be just about the football with this club. It just can’t. That’s the price to pay for unlimited wealth.
Natural Grealish a contrast to City's predictability
But Grealish does seem to be an exception. He’s only about the football. He can only be himself, in the moment, with a ball at his feet or a microphone in hand, it’s all the same to him. He’s natural, authentic and spontaneous, despite being part of a cynical product of central planning at the highest levels of state (and a foreign state, too).
In post-match interviews, he still pinches himself. The Birmingham boy heading towards a Champions League final by essentially playing the way he always did. He beats full-backs. He dribbles inside like he’s showing off for the girls back at school. Only he does it faster now, more often and more effectively. He tracks back, too. Pep Guardiola has turned Grealish into a total footballer for a total cause.
But his evolution may still be unpalatable for some, as it’s just another example of the richest club being able to facilitate a talent’s growth. Grealish can be given a season or two to legitimately replace Raheem Sterling because City are blessed with the personnel and patience to make that transition. Guardiola can buy Erling Haaland for the present and Julián Álvarez for the future and accommodate both. No one else can.
To use the most obvious contrast, Liverpool struggled all season to acclimatise Darwin Nunez, but the whimsical notion of keeping Sadio Mane long enough to play master to Nunez’s apprentice was never going to be a financial reality. Only City’s riches permitted them the time to turn Aston Villa’s mercurial playmaker into Real Madrid’s worst nightmare.
And yet, Grealish retains the quirks and foibles of regular people, despite being at the heart of an irregular quest for dominance. Manchester City’s board members and supporters should not underestimate such relatable qualities, especially now.
The struggle to be an appealing product will remain a problem for a club seeking to win a Treble and lose an asterisk in a single campaign (the former will probably be easier to achieve than the latter). City’s aggrieved supporters may feel unloved for matters that are obviously beyond their control, but they do have Grealish as a lovable buffer, if you like.
A 23-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, undefeated at the Etihad in 26 Champions League matches and 196 completed passes before City's first goal against Real Madrid are astonishing, ridiculous statistics that should only evoke awe and admiration, but instead trigger a nagging sense of apathy. It all feels a bit predictable, crushingly so at times.
Not Grealish though. He’s still the joker in a streamlined pack, unable to entirely censor thought or deed, offering the rest of us something irreverent and real. We really should take it. As the City crusade trundles towards one inevitable triumph after another, he’s still bringing a little innocence to the party.
(Grealish is) still the joker in a streamlined pack, unable to entirely censor thought or deed, offering the rest of us something irreverent and real.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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