English and Irish football need to have a long, hard think about treatment of Jack Grealish
Here's the thing about Jack Grealish.
For nearly three years, he's been kicked. He's been stamped on. He's had boys lean down and butt their big heads into him, roaring something aggressive in his ear as he lies strewn on the grass after taking another bout of punishment cheered wildly by the opposition support.
This season, he's been fouled an average of 4.7 times per game - unprecedented levels of abuse - and he's not soft. He doesn't go down easy, he doesn't go looking for the fouls and, if anything, he has to do more than the next man to earn his frees because it's easier for referees to get caught up in the narrative that he's the panto villain and he's asking for it.
Ever since Villa dropped to the Championship, he's been nothing more than a body bag for overeager defenders or anyone just looking to lay down a marker.
He's the epitome of that unwritten Sunday League rule where any player showing any bit of trickery or audacity is not just free to be taught a lesson, but it's actually expected that you seek him out yourself and administer whatever justice you see fit. The desperate, apoplectic roars of 'don't let him do that to you' generally follow the official's conscious enthusiasm to wave play on when the guy who thought he was here playing football takes a stud to the shin.
The idea is that he won't fucking do that again. We're not here to play football, mate.
Grealish is being fouled an average of 4.7 times per game. The next closest to him in the Championship is his team mate John McGinn, another ball-player who's apparently just begging to be hit for having the pure nerve to look to be creative in the middle of the pitch. John McGinn is second with 2.8 fouls drawn in each match. Over the course of Grealish's 23 Championship appearances so far, that's over 60 times more than the next player.
And all the while, very little seems to be done about it. We watch Grealish get tripped, pushed, and barged over, we watch him pick himself up and we watch him go again. His only crime is having the skill and balls to commit men - that's what makes him such a special player. He holds the ball, he dribbles it, he draws the opposition to him and either takes it on by them or finds the rest of the team who have been freed up by his work.
But the better and more confident he gets and the higher his stock rises, then the more red target dots form all over his body as the would-be hard men of the Championship offer a dreadful advertisement for the league that this is not just their only form of dealing with a player with good ball control, but it's what some fans are there to see as well.
Against Fulham in the playoff final last year, Ryan Fredericks had Jack Grealish lying in front of him (he helped him there, of course), and proceeded to stamp clean, straight and disgustingly down flush on top of his knee cap with real force and real intent. That he wasn't red carded is one thing but he wasn't even suspended retrospectively. Zero protection and less justice for Jack Grealish in that one, sickening case that genuinely could've sidelined him for a chunk of his career, if not the rest of it.
Britain and Ireland aren't fully ready for the showmanship that comes with one of their own jinking and weaving and, you know, playing ball with skill, but they'll gladly embrace the show-offs who think it makes them hard to plough into someone, stamp on him and kick him when he came to play a game of football.
Grealish is vilified for his playing style, for switching from Ireland to his native England and probably for his socks being pulled down shorter than others too. Taken to the extreme, that results in him being punched by a fan and that fan being applauded from the stadium. Taken every weekend, it's just him being fouled and abused in every game.
On The Football Spin, Dion Fanning made the point that anyone who has lent a hand to that vilification campaign of such a young player are creating an atmosphere where it's okay to genuinely hate these men.
"Who were the people abusing Jack Grealish when he decided to switch from Ireland to England? They were Irish people.
"It was Irish people who were happily abusing him and happily abusing Declan Rice.
"If you contributed to the demonisation of Jack Grealish or Declan Rice, then you should start thinking about what you've done because all of these things feed into each other.
"All these actions towards young guys who are exceptional human beings who have made so much of their lives and talking about things they do in terms of betrayal and all these other aspects.
"You may say, 'I'd never go onto a pitch and punch him,' but if you're abusing these people, you're contributing to an atmosphere where certain people are seen to be in need of taking down a peg or two."
Every week, they are trying to take Jack Grealish down a peg or five.
We've all sat in changing rooms where the manager has issued an instruction in no uncertain terms that the Grealish equivalent in the other team is not to get away with any of his shite today.
The shite, in those cases, the stuff he won't be allowed to so much as attempt, is playing football with a bit of skill. In Grealish's case and others like him, players don't just actively and literally seek to stamp that flair out, but fans demand it too.
Maybe these isles still aren't ready for the football revolution we've been threatening for a decade. You go down one division in England and it's the same as it is everywhere else: 'You won't fucking do that again, mate.'
Maybe not. And neither will the children watching on.