It was after Aston Villa’s 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in December that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sought out to congratulate the player he considered the man of the match. “You were the best player on the pitch today,” he told scorer of the opening goal, Jack Grealish.
Solskjaer was a little more guarded in his praise of Grealish during the post-match press conference. “I can’t talk too much about other teams’ players, if they’re Man United calibre or targets.” He could not help himself, though.
“Fantastic goal,” he added. “I think he hit one of the corners I hit a couple of times. It was a great finish. We should defend better, show him down the left, but what a goal and he played a good game.”
Solskjaer has remained a great admirer of Grealish ever since, to the point where the 24-year-old is among a group of young English players which head Manchester United’s summer shortlist.
What’s more – compared with Jadon Sancho, James Maddison and Jude Bellingham – he may be the most easily obtainable of the four, especially if Villa lose their Premier League status once the 2019-20 season is resumed.
But inevitably, the weekend’s events have not gone unnoticed.
Grealish has now apologised for flouting self-distancing guidelines and said he is “deeply embarrassed” by his decision to go to a friend’s house at the weekend, less than 24 hours after he had told others to follow government advice and stay indoors.
He will now be fined by his club, who said in a statement that they were “deeply disappointed” by their player’s behaviour and that a donation will be made to a local hospital charity. United, meanwhile, will have watched the weekend’s developments closely.
Solskjaer has a very particular idea about what “a United player” is, both on and off the pitch. Ever since taking the reins at Old Trafford, he has publicly stressed the importance of any new signing being “the right character” and moved others on for failing to meet expectations.
“We’ve tried to educate our players and our kids to be proper people,” the Norwegian said last year. “In my view, the best players have always been the best people. You have to have that value system and a certain kind of attitude about you to make a United player.”
Back in November, he went as far to tell his players to be boring. “Sometimes you’re a footballer, so you can experience so many different things but it should be quite the contrary – when you’re a footballer you should be proper boring.
“You go to bed, you rest, you recover and you get ready for the next game. You can do all the other stuff after your career. That’s the culture we need to get to… I was boring, I made the most of my career.
“I want these boys to get the most out of their career and some of them have been part of a winning Man United team and it’s the best feeling in the world when you’re part of a winning Man United team, when the good times are here, and that’s what we’re working for.”
Grealish is anything but boring. That is partly why, on the pitch at least, he has attracted such interest from Old Trafford. He remains a priority target even after the weekend’s events. But then these are also uncertain times.
There has been no indication that United’s summer plans have radically changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as of yet, but no club is untouched by this crisis. The effect that coronavirus will have on the ability of top clubs to spend this summer is still relatively unclear. Daniel Levy’s powerful comments on Tuesday apply across the board.
“When I read or hear stories about transfers this summer like nothing has happened, people need to wake up to enormity of what is happening,” the Tottenham Hotspur chairman said. “With over 786,000 infected, nearly 38,000 deaths and large segments of the world in lockdown we need to realise that football cannot operate in a bubble.”
If United decide against moving for Grealish, it will most likely be down to these wider factors than any ill-advised trip to a friend’s during quarantine. But if Grealish wants to finally leave his boyhood club this summer, he should be careful not to give his potential suitors an excuse not to sign him.