MARTIN O’NEILL AND Roy Keane have been to the four corners of England tracking players over the past two months as they plan for the Serbia friendly in March ahead of the opening Euro 2016 qualifiers later this year.
And while Ireland’s management team have so far restricted themselves to Premier League and Championship grounds, they could do worse than to pay a visit to Notts County’s Meadow Lane this afternoon as the League One side welcome Walsall.
The Magpies were last week boosted by news that talented teenager Jack Grealish was extending his loan period from Aston Villa to the end of the season after he proved a revelation during his initial three-month spell.
A technically-gifted winger with good feet and an eye for goal, the 18-year-old has scored four times in 21 appearances (the majority of which were on the left flank) with manager Shaun Derry delighted to retain his services as they attempt to climb above from current position of 16th in the third tier.
And speaking to TheScore.ie this week, the player himself explained that he is also glad to sticking around.
“I arrived near enough to the start of the season and was enjoying it so we decided that I would stay,” he says. “There were other offers from Championship and League One clubs but both myself and Aston Villa thought this would be best for me.”
Shaun Derry and (assistant) Greg Abbott have both been great with me. They’ve helped me learn the game and adapt as a player both defensively and in attack.
“The Notts County fans have also been great with me and the team particularly when the results weren’t going so well. They’ve all been supportive on Twitter and when we’ve played at home at Meadow Lane or away and we owe it to them get the results and push up the table.”
In action for Notts County against Brentford. Credit: Rowan Staszkiewicz/EMPICS Sport
Grealish, who puts his success so far down to the incredible support of his family, enjoyed a particularly special moment in December when he scored his first senior goal and got to celebrate it with his biggest fan — his dad.
Notts held a slender 2-1 lead over Gillingham going into the closing minutes when the youngster glided by four defenders before finding the roof of the net.
Here’s the goal and celebration:
YouTube credit: Adam Bird
“It was a great moment,” he says. “To celebrate with my dad was great for both of us. At the start of the season I was playing okay but I wasn’t getting on the scoresheet as much. Over the past few months I’ve started to score so hopefully I can keep that going.
My whole family, but especially my dad, have had a massive influence on my career. They’ve always kept me on the right track, encouraged me to play football and do the best I can.
“I’ve played 20 games for Notts County and my dad has only missed one. He follows me all around the country to watch me and even comes when I play for Ireland U21s in places like the Faroe Islands.”
Born in Birmingham and a lifelong Villa fan, Grealish is eligible to play for Ireland through three grandparents and has come through the underage system from the age of 15 to U21 level, where he made three appearances last year.
He may have been the youngest member of Noel King’s squad but impressed in games against the Faroe Islands (which he scored in) and Montenegro alongside Villa clubmate Samir Carruthers.
“I hadn’t even played U19s so it was a big step up to go from U18s to U21s but Noel said to me that I have the talent to do it. I’ve started the last two games and done well in them – scoring a goal.
“Hopefully I’ll do well when we’ve our next games in March.
“Me and Samir get on really well and I’m always speaking to him about how he’s getting on at MK Dons. He’s doing well there at the moment and I am at Notts County too so it’s good to see.”
Grealish celebrates scoring against the Faroe Islands. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie
While Grealish insists he is happy lining out for the Boys in Green, the English FA did make contact last year in the hope of persuading him to switch allegiance to his country of birth.
“They came in for me last summer and said that they want me to play for them and that I would be in the U19s squad but you want to play at the highest level you can don’t you. To play for Ireland at U21s level is better so that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Grealish speaks glowing of the work done by the FAI and its staff over the years and explains that choosing to play for Ireland “wasn’t a hard decision”. That said, until he is capped in a competitive senior international, he remains free to represent either nation and admits his future isn’t 100% certain.
“From when I first played when I was 15 they (the FAI) treated me really well. They told me how much they thought of me, what will happen in the future and they didn’t tell any lies — everything they said was the truth.
It’s hard to say (if things could change) and it depends on what happens in the future. But what I know is I do want to play for Ireland at the moment.”
With that in mind, it might be a good idea for O’Neill to take a look with the view to integrating him into the senior set-up sooner rather than later.
“I can remember him at the club,” he recalls of the current Ireland boss. “I was about 14 but I would’ve been too young for him to know me. He did well at Villa so hopefully him and Roy Keane can carry on with Ireland and push them on.”
At club level, Grealish’s ultimate goal is to carve out a career at the club he became a ticket holder with at four before signing for them as an eight-year-old. In the short term, however, he is totally focused on Notts County’s cause — starting with today’s game.
“We’re 16th now so hopefully we can keep pushing up the table. Our aim is to finish as high as we can. I’m positive that we will beat the drop and we won’t go down.”