On Sunday, June 7, over a week after the FA Cup Final and the day after the Champions League Final, England play Republic of Ireland in an international friendly as baffling in its timing as it is underwhelming in appeal.
In their first meeting in Dublin since the notorious 1995 friendly, one man who will be conspicuous by his absence is Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish.
Birmingham born Grealish was called up by Martin O’Neill to the Ireland squad for the friendly and the European Championship qualifier which follows but the 19-year-old rejected the chance to make his senior international bow.
Even before this latest interaction, Grealish’s international future had become a hot topic in the Irish football media.
Grealish sprung to prominence in England after a man of the match performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool, gaining a more regular starting spot in the Aston Villa team since Tim Sherwood became manager.
In the last weeks of the season, with Villa fighting for survival, Grealish continued to put in eye-catching performances.
While this had seemed to be a sudden emergence to the English press and fans, Grealish had long been very highly thought of in Ireland.
He has represented Ireland at every age group from under 15 to under 21, owing to his grandparents on both his mother and father’s side being Irish.
With the national team in somewhat of a down-cycle in terms of Premier League level talent, Grealish was labelled with the ‘next big thing’ tag for Irish football fans who kept a close eye on his progress.
In theory, Grealish’s performances for his club should have been excellent news for Ireland. However, his recent run of form has brought about huge attention in England and as such, the increased possibility of international recognition from the land of his birth.
The waters of Grealish’s international future have been muddied for a lot of this past season due to his wish not to be considered for under 21 duty, apparently to allow him to focus on his club form.
As such, the possibility of a switch in international allegiance has worried many observers in Irish football and kept Grealish in a constant media spotlight on this side of the Irish Sea.
Interestingly, even given his increased profile in England, by and large the focus there has been on his footballing talents and his performances for Villa rather than who he might choose to represent at international level.
He has been the major football story in Ireland all season for a decision he will have to make off the pitch while he has been a minor story in England for his on-field performances, an untypical outcome for the English press.
The decision facing Grealish is one which many British born players have been faced with. Since the days of Jack Charlton, the Republic of Ireland have sought to exploit their large diaspora in England by searching for players with Irish backgrounds to represent them.
Some of the players who have decided to turn out for Ireland have done so due to a deep resonance with the country and its culture.
Players such as Aiden McGeady, James McCarthy and Kevin Kilbane were brought up to feel Irish, regardless of where they were born. Others only developed this relationship with the country and its people having represented Ireland for many years.
Some have seen the opportunity for international recognition as a canny career move and nothing more. Having international caps on a footballing CV was seen as a boost in contract negotiations or in seeking a move.
This was an especially popular tactic following Italia 90, when Ireland made the quarter finals. Without wanting to name any names, let us just say one such player who saw an opportunity to join a success bandwagon is a football pundit who once upon a time had a large automotive vehicle in which he used to discuss the nuances of the game.
To give Jack Grealish his due, there does appear to be a genuine connection for him to the country of his grandparents’ birth. He played Gaelic football growing up and has always thrown himself wholeheartedly into representing the Irish underage sides.
His reluctance to commit his international future has drawn severe criticism in Ireland; with pundits, journalists and fans alike becoming frustrated with the process.
His latest refusal to join up with O’Neill’s squad prompted former Irish captain turned pundit Kenny Cunningham to call for Grealish to never be selected for Ireland again. Such is the attention that this story has gained that his view was endorsed by rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll. Heady times indeed.
Grealish’s story is a common one for Irish football fans. There is a long list of promising English born players who represented Ireland at underage level before switching back to the country of their birth in search of senior recognition. The indignation of this rejection is well known and the outcry is well practiced.
However, in the coming years, the shoe will be on the other foot for Irish football. From the mid 1990’s onwards, in the midst of rapid economic growth, Ireland experienced its first wave of large scale emigration.
Whereas before, it had always been people leaving the country, now families from African and Easten Europe flooded into Ireland.
Now, the children of these families, either born here or living here from a young age are populating the underage squads of the Republic of Ireland.
Most Irish football fans would expect that those who turn out to be good enough will go on to play senior international football for Ireland.
But what if these players associate more readily with the country of their parents’ birth? If these players feel more of a connection with Nigeria or Lithuania than Ireland, or if these countries attempt to make moves towards players, how would Irish fans and officials react? One could not imagine well.
Ireland have become well practiced at being the small country trying to make the most of parentage rules to find players and decrying when the bigger nations (mostly England) tempt these players away. How they fare when the roles are reversed is yet to be seen.
For Grealish, whenever he makes his decision, once it is motivated by genuine connection to a country, it will be extremely hard to criticise him.
If the decision is made in the interest of career advancement, cynically stringing Ireland along to see if the more high profile England come calling, this period of reflection will not be looked upon favourably. He should be allowed all the time he needs to make a call he can only decide upon once.
More generally for Ireland’s footballing future, their fortunes may not be decided by Grealish’s decision but rather by how they react to the changing demographics of their playing base and the challenges that may pose.