Sam Wallace, the Independent’s chief football correspondent, is reporting that “Jack Grealish is set to choose England as his senior international side before the final round of Euro 2016 qualifiers against Estonia and Lithuania next month“, so perhaps the player will make a decision on his international future by the time September is out, after all. It is worth remaining cautious, however, before assuming this story to be definitely true; whilst it may be fair to assume that Wallace has access to sources inside the English FA, he has not yet substantiated the bare claim with any quotes or evidence. Interestingly, Tim Sherwood, the player’s manager at Aston Villa, also still appears to be unaware of any decision having been made.
Nevertheless, if the story does indeed transpire to be accurate, we Irish supporters should avoid getting too precious about the whole affair. There will inevitably be ire directed towards Grealish – there already has been on forums and social media today – but indignation from our quarter is surely a little rich considering we are more than happy to benefit from the very same choice that is open to all dual-eligible players and of which Grealish is very much free to take advantage.
Irish supporters have happily welcomed players like James McClean, Shane Duffy, Eunan O’Kane and Ciaran Clark into the FAI’s ranks after these players switched from other associations. We have had no qualms whatsoever with accepting players who have played through the various youth levels with other associations until it came down to the matter and point of actually making a final declaration of irreversible commitment; that being making oneself available for senior level selection by an association and being capped at that level competitively.
The aforementioned are players who might otherwise have been selected by the senior teams of these other associations had they opted to remain put. As such, we should not pretend that the Jack Grealish situation is any different in principle simply because he is going in the other direction.
If we agree with the choice open to dual-eligible players and are happy to benefit from it, we should also accept it when we feel we have lost out as a result of it. Indeed, we too have had players play for other associations after having first played for the FAI before – Alex Bruce, who switched to Northern Ireland, and Éamon Zayed, who switched to Libya, are just two examples of such players – although Grealish might well be the most high-profile and talented mover to date.
Let us not play the aggrieved and powerless victims here, however. Many Irish fans are feeling “strung along” by a “ditherer”, but has it not been the FAI who, out of self-interest, have provided the platform for Grealish to “dither” and upon which the whole will-he-won’t-he saga has played out? If the FAI have indeed been “strung along” (and I am not necessarily agreeing that they have been, as I feel such evocative language is needlessly cynical in the context of discussing a young, dual-national footballer with a difficult choice in front of him), it is only because those at the association have been more than happy to indulge Grealish’s ambivalence on account of how we potentially stood, or stand, to benefit.
If some Irish fans would have preferred we were not “strung along”, perhaps they should have been asking the FAI to issue him an ultimatum months, if not years, ago. The ball has always been in the FAI’s court. I think we ought to appreciate that Grealish is a dual national with split loyalties, however, undoubtedly proud of both his English and Irish heritage, and, as such, any decision such as this – an irrevocable, career-defining one – cannot be, or have been, an easy one for him.
The insistent contributions of Brian O’Driscoll, Kenny Cunningham and Darren O’Dea to the debate were neither insightful nor worthwhile. O’Dea utterly failed to comprehend Grealish’s dilemma, whilst the former two suggested the young Villa player should never have been entertained by the FAI again as some sort of penalty for having even had to think about representing the country.
These are Irish sportsmen who never experienced what Grealish has experienced; they did not grow up feeling both English and Irish. They only ever felt Irish; they were born and bred Irish in Ireland. Indeed, the only international sporting choice they ever had was to play for Ireland, so, of course, it is very easy for them to lecture others on national preference and commitment in line with their own ideals. The opinion of Birmingham-born Ireland supporter Tom Parker was a much more welcome addition to the debate:
I know several people who talk fondly of tucking into Kimberley biscuits and red lemonade on childhood visits to their grandparents, and whom are fiercely proud of their Irish roots. But come the next big England match, they then think nothing of draping the St. George’s flag around their shoulders and belting out ‘God Save The Queen’. It’s not a betrayal, it’s just a celebration of mixed heritage.
The difference is that, for fans, there’s no obligation to choose just one nation. The English born Irish can celebrate every part of their make-up without having to surrender one in favour of the other.
Unfortunately for Jack Grealish, he’s an elite level footballer and simply can’t have it both ways.
I get the impression from Sam Wallace’s words that he feels Grealish might be hoping to make the England senior squad for their Euro 2016 qualifiers in a month’s time. However, Grealish will not be cleared to play for the FA by then, if he indeed does make a decision to switch, as the administrative side of the formal switching process, which is managed by FIFA’s Players’ Status Committee, can take up to between three and six months.
In light of the fact that Jack Grealish has been representing Ireland since the age of 14, it is a pity things may not work out in our favour, but if Wallace’s report is true, I wish Jack Grealish all the best with his future aspirations and I hope he enjoyed his time representing the Irish side of his heritage with distinction.