Jack Grealish: ‘I am a footballer but I’m still human. We all make mistakes’ | Football

The challenge facing Aston Villa is to emerge from the Premier League hiatus better than they were before it. Jack Grealish accepts that applies to him more than most. Over the past couple of months he has spent time, and money, trying to prove that he does not deserve to be defined by that serious mistake he made in late March.

You know the one. The photograph went everywhere. Less than 24 hours after he publicly urged people to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, he was pictured looking bewildered and dishevelled on a Birmingham street beside his damaged Range Rover, which had collided with parked cars to expose the fact that he broke lockdown to travel to a friend’s house. West Midlands Police’s investigation continues. The day after the incident Grealish acknowledged his hypocrisy on social media.

“I knew straight away that I had to come out and apologise myself, which I wanted to do; I didn’t want to hide behind a club statement,” says the 24-year-old who, since then, has donated £150,000 to Birmingham Children’s Hospital – which he has supported many times in the past – and raised more than £55,000 for the NHS by raffling of one of his jerseys. “I am old enough now and mature enough to know that I’d done wrong.

“I know I am a footballer but I’m still human and we all make mistakes and straight away I knew I’d made a mistake. I’m also a role model as well to a lot of people out there, especially young children who might look up to me. So I try to act in respectable manner but since then I have tried to keep my head down, work hard and do as much charitable work as possible.”

Grealish knows some people will always place the emphasis on his errors no matter what good he does. “That’s just the way things are in this world that we live in. Everyone knows when you do something it’s always going to be the bad stuff that gets out there. That’s what I have to deal with. I respect my job, absolutely love what I do, and wouldn’t change it for the world.”

On the pitch is where Grealish is most at home. Villa’s manager, Dean Smith, describes him as a “football nut” and the player admits he “missed football a silly amount” during the league’s suspension. So he was delighted to return to training last week. That joy, however, was overshadowed by the news that Smith’s father, Ron, died last week as a result of coronavirus after a long time with dementia. Grealish says everyone at Villa was devastated and has been trying to help the manager deal with his grief as best they can.

Jack Grealish says he has had a good season in the Premier League but it didn’t start quite as he would have liked. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

“I always used to ask him every day how his dad was getting on,” says Grealish. “Then when the news came it was devastating for him and his family. Us as players have tried to be there for him and try to help him. One good thing about football when you are having a problem away off the pitch, when you do come into training or play a match, it takes your mind off everything else. It certainly does for me. That’s what we tried to do for the manager.”

He says the death of Ron, a lifelong Villa fan, has given the club one more reason to perform better when the season resumes. “I’m sure we all want to avoid relegation even more now, for the Smith family.”

Grealish and Smith have a close bond, captain and manager respectively of the club both have supported since childhood. “The manager has been a massive influence on me,” he says. “I couldn’t give him enough credit. I see him as like a father figure to me, I can go and speak to him about anything. I feel that’s the same with him a bit; he can ask me about what I’m feeling about training, matches. For me, I could speak to him about anything, on or off the field. Since he has come in he has been brilliant. I have played the best football of my career since he got appointed.”

Smith’s decision to award Grealish the captaincy last season has been vindicated by the player’s performances. He has been the one consistent bright spot in their form this season, seamlessly transferring his Championship-dominating form to the top flight to contribute a tally of seven goals and six assists so far.

Jack Grealish and Dean Smith embrace

Jack Grealish credits his manager, Dean Smith, as the reason he is playing his best football. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

“My season has been very good, though I probably didn’t start as I wanted to. I got an assist in the second game but apart from that I don’t think I got a goal or an assist for six weeks and that’s what I base my game on, what I do to help the team since then I have just thrived and enjoyed every single moment. Without sounding arrogant or big-headed I had no doubts I would come into this league and perform the way I have done.”

The task now is to stay in the league. Villa are second-bottom, six of the club’s remaining 10 games are at home, but that may not be much of an advantage with matches behind closed doors.

“I would probably say it is a disadvantage, if I am honest, only because of how much we have thrived on the home games this year. We have won a lot more at home than we have away. We had six games remaining at home. We still have a game in hand and if we win the game in hand we are out of the relegation zone. It is not something we are going to sit back and moan about. It is still in our hands. We can’t moan about the fact we might have had the fans there. We will just take it as it is because we are just delighted to be getting back.”

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On the plus side, says Grealish, the league hiatus gave John McGinn more time to regain full fitness. The Scot was sorely missed after being injured before Christmas. “Him coming back will be massive for us,” says Grealish, who says the midfielder brings “class and energy”. McGinn attracts attention from opponents, which makes life a little easier for Grealish, the most-fouled player in the Premier League this season. “Having him back will help me because he gets kicked a lot, too.”

One person from whom Grealish would welcome more attention is Gareth Southgate. Gaining a first England cap remains a dream. “That is what I have set out to achieve since I committed to England. In March I did not know what was going to happen but the virus obviously stopped everything. Who knows if I would have been called up or not [for the last England squad]? All I can do is start the way I was playing before and hopefully next season I can start strongly and when the internationals come back around I will be back in with a shout.”

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