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Exclusive: The rise of Jack Grealish told by ex-Aston Villa teammate Strain

Jack Grealish, it's a name that evokes many emotions throughout Britain and across the world. This enigmatic, mercurial playmaker, whose iconic low-socks and slicked-back blonde-streaks are now a staple of Premier League football, receives a mixture of love and hate from television screens globally .

It has been well documented that his journey to becoming one of the Premier League's most exciting and damaging players has been far from smooth sailing. Indeed, his fantastic goal at the Olympic Stadium to rescue his side from relegation with the captain's armband firmly around his bicep, marks the completion of a boyhood dream that began at six years of age when he joined the club.

Tribalfootball had the pleasure of speaking to one of his former teammates and good-friend, Tom Strain, who played alongside Grealish in the Aston Villa Academy. On his experiences with Grealish, Strain reflected: "We stayed with him at digs for two to three years, (we) lived together...looking back it was just remarkable what he could do.

"With Jack, you just get the occasional player who you just know from day one...there was an aura about him. You couldn't tackle him in training, he was just so competitive all the time.

"Don't get me wrong he puts in the extras as well but when it comes to naturally gifted players, he is the best I've ever seen.

"To be his good mate, I'm so proud of him because we had some great times when we were younger…(He's) just a genuine special talent and a great guy."

Grealish made his Premier League debut against Manchester City in 2014, aged just 18. His two minutes on the pitch served as reward for a highly successful loan spell in League One with Notts County.

Despite a promising 2014/15 season where Grealish made 17 Premier League appearances, his development and public reputation was hampered with stories of him partying and allegedly using nitrous oxide in April 2015, receiving wide public condemnation.

This condemnation turned private when manager Remi Garde dropped Grealish back to the U21 side after he went out clubbing in November of 2015 following a 4-0 loss to Everton.

The season of 2015/16 saw Grealish play approximately the same Premier League minutes as the previous season. However, more damagingly, Villa finished rock bottom of the Premier League table, with Grealish experiencing 16 losses from his 16 appearances as the Villains were relegated to the Championship.

2016 also brought more off-field turmoil for Villa's number 40, who in September of that year was the subject of an in-club disciplinary investigation, called after reports Grealish was at a party in a Birmingham hotel which was shut down by the police in the early hours of the morning. He was also suspended for 3 matches later that year after a stamp on Conor Coady was deemed violent conduct.

This left a young Jack Grealish with a heavily blighted reputation, another footballer in an ever increasing list of footballers who let off-field distractions detract from their on-field brilliance. The potential he had shown from an early age was threatening to go sour.

However, this form began to turn after a freak injury to his kidney at the start of the 2017/18 Championship season. A run to the play-off final ended in heartbreak, but that simply served as the prelude to the following season.

The 2018/19 season saw Grealish take his game to a new level. Returning from a shinbone injury, Grealish had the captain's armband bestowed upon him and saw his side win 10 games in a row, charging with a head of steam into the play-offs. The Villains went on to win all 3 games, including the final, to gain promotion, leaving Grealish with a captaincy record of 13-1-0 and an inexorable side heading into the Premier League.

His form continued in the Premier League with 8 goals and 6 assists backing up what was a heroic season for the Englishman which culminated in his deliverance on the final day of the season. This potential had become a talent, and this talent looks destined to become a superstar.

Speaking on the rise of his friend and former teammate and of the indiscretions in his early years, Strain commented: "You've got to remember that going through the system, you are going through your teenage years. Some of the stuff that Jack has got in trouble for, these are just things that normal teenagers are doing. But as a professional, you have to be responsible for your actions.

"But from growing up with him to seeing him captain the club, seeing how much he's matured over the years has been remarkable. He dragged that team into the premier league last year in the play-offs...and now he's been instrumental in keeping them up."

The question really is then, was this rise to prominence predestined? Did those around him have faith that he could make it at the highest level or was he a more volatile prospect. Strain answered these questions when asked by TribalFootball.

"It was inevitable, (if) you speak to anyone at the club during those academy years, he was always destined for great things. It was just if he could put the extras in he would always (go well). It was a question of when for me, just from training with him.

"He was ten levels above everyone and now that he's got the strength, (he) probably hit the gym a bit later on in his development (but) his legs are like tree trunks anyway, he didn't really need much gym work.

"Jack was just different, I probably didn't think 'Captain' but now he's just a leader on and off the pitch so it's great to see."

Not many have had the privilege of playing alongside Villa's number 10 and Strain revealed what was so special about lining up as a striker with Grealish right behind.

"Playing with him, he could just control a game. If he wanted to, it would be on his boot. He's just so calm.

"A thing he used to pride himself highly on is he'd never come in and talk about his goals or his assists, he would literally just say if he gave the ball away.

"Always the first thing he'd say was how many times he'd given the ball away, because he just hated losing the ball.

"So if you watch him in the Premier League and the games he plays, he very very rarely loses the ball even in tight positions."

Grealish's close control and eye for a pass saw him average 2.5 key passes a game last season (3rd best in the league) as well as being comfortably the highest fouled player, 161 times, 45 more times the 2nd most.

"That's the thing, you've got to foul him to get the ball, he wont give away a cheap possession. That's what makes him so dangerous because you know he is so efficient with the ball. You're going to have to take him out or just hope that he makes a mistake, which rarely comes."

Following his terrific season as leader of the Villains, the discourse surrounding Jack Grealish is about what's next, with many postulating that he is destined for a transfer into the upper echelons of European clubland.

"The sky's the limit for him definitely, I'm not sure what his next move will be but whatever he chooses to do I'm sure it'll be successful.

"Jack going (to) a top 6 team, as they say in England, (a) team that keeps possession, he's just going to be relentless.

"Money spent on Jack, whatever it is, is going to be so worth it because at the end of the day, he is only 24, captain of Aston Villa, I think he could turn into a world-beater, and that's on the International stage as well.

"I think it's only a matter of time before he gets a call up to the England squad, I don't even know how he hasn't been called up to be honest with you.

"Obviously he's very loyal to that football club Aston Villa, so (it) will take some moving him, he really does love that club, he's a childhood Villa fan.

"It might take a little bit of time at the start, but I'm sure if he does move on he will cause a lot of problems at champions league level or international level if he got the call up."

Despite not being included in Southgate's initial England squad for the Nations League matches against Iceland and Denmark, with Marcus Rashford being withdrawn due to an ankle injury, the stars aligned for Grealish and he now finds himself receiving his debut call up with the national side.

Captaining his boyhood club and now the opportunity to represent the Three Lions, the rise of Jack Grealish has certainly been an inspiration to young players across the country, and his journey is certainly far from over.

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Eli Rubenstein Sturgess

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