Jack Grealish probably was not the only 24-year-old to ignore the government lockdown last weekend in order to go socialising, but he was the only one to do so almost immediately after lecturing hundreds of thousands of followers on social media about the importance of staying at home to keep people safe. His demonstration of a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitude has led many people to rail that he is unfit to continue captaining Aston Villa, though others might suggest it marks him out as a future prime minister.
Grealish did a hypocritical and dangerous thing and his apology was not altogether satisfying, since his account of “what happened at the weekend” did not include any explanation as to how his Range Rover came to collide with several motionless vehicles. It would have been useful to hear his version of events given so many other people are offering theirs, real or imagined. It will be interesting to see what West Midlands police make of the matter. Maybe they will confirm reports that the player faces no charges. So far they have declined to do so.
What Aston Villa make of it is that they are “deeply disappointed” and believe Grealish deserves a fine for going against the government’s and his own advice. There would, it is true, be a fair case for the club taking a sterner view and removing the captaincy from him, at least until he earns it back through improved behaviour. We are, after all, told that a potential consequence of gathering unnecessarily these days is that people will die. Having a man who has flouted the curfew as the club’s figurehead leaves Villa open to accusations that they, too, are not taking things as seriously as they should.
But strange times put people, even rich young footballers, under all kinds of stress. And the deed is done. Villa, knowing Grealish well, have apparently judged his regret to be sincere, his determination to atone real, his latest social media utterance more trustworthy than his previous one. There is nothing wrong with being represented by someone who has made a mistake and resolved to mend their ways. Especially, of course, if that is the interpretation that suits club and player best. Grealish better prove he has grown.
To an extent, Villa’s reputation depends on him doing so. Certainly, his own reputation does. Leaving aside for a moment the damage he would risk doing to others by relapsing into thoughtlessness, it would be a real shame if the way Grealish led his life off the pitch were to prevent him from reaching the footballing heights of which his talent puts him within reach.
But we must be wary, too, of extrapolating too much from one outbreak of recklessness in an exceptional time, added to a couple of drinking sprees several years ago. We do not know enough about Grealish to declare him wayward and incorrigible. We can be sure, though, that any clubs thinking of splashing tens of millions to lure him from Villa will be doing their utmost to establish how Grealish usually spends his free time. Does he have, or can he develop, the temperament to make any adjustments needed to his recreational pursuits?
What we can say for sure is that on the pitch Grealish has pretty much always been exceptionally mature. There he is in his natural environment and he thrives. That much has been obvious since the 2015 FA Cup semi-final when, as an inexperienced 19-year-old, he sauntered out in front of 85,000 onlookers at Wembley and made Liverpool nervous and meek in a match that was supposed to be all about Steven Gerrard. A year ago Dean Smith decided the player would get even better if entrusted with the captain’s armband.
“I knew it wouldn’t be a burden to him and that he’d relish it,” Smith said last March. “He’s a really good professional and I felt if I didn’t give it to him that would be overlooking his leadership qualities.” Until last weekend Smith could claim total vindication thanks to Grealish’s performance in matches and in training, where the captain has led by example.
“Sometimes I have to drag him off the training pitch,” Smith said in September. “Jack’s a football person. He will train all day and go and find a room somewhere and fall asleep. Then he’ll wake up and do a gym session. That’s how he is. He’s that sort of character. He’ll go back home and he’ll be watching football as well. He’s a football nut.”
Last weekend, however, with no football to watch and little prospect of playing it again any time soon, Grealish apparently succumbed to boredom and made a goofy decision. He has to stop doing that, for everyone’s sake.