In one of the stranger displays of football supporter behaviour this season, Jack Grealish has been booed by most opposition fanbases following his £100m move from Aston Villa to Manchester City.
Those same fans will likely be cheering his name when he represents England tonight, before resuming the pantomime boos when he next runs out for City. It’s an unexplainable phenomenon, as Grealish has done nothing to offend these fans other than be very good at football and have one club pay another club their asking price for his services.
Ask a Villa fan, though, and they may provide a list of grievances towards Grealish, and he will probably expect a rough reception on his return to Villa Park on December 1.
A section of the Villa support have been extremely vocal of their disappointment at the manner of Grealish’s exit for City, and when he sent a heartfelt message to former manager Dean Smith following his recent sacking on social media his replies were flooded with Villa fans telling him he should shoulder some of the blame for Smith’s departure.
Even Smith’s own statement saying farewell to Villa fans saw Grealish get criticised for not writing a message as good when he left.
It feels like any update Grealish posts will generate as much response from aggrieved Villa fans as from supportive City fans, and any action he makes for City is compared to what could have been had he stayed at Villa. When City were knocked out of the Carabao Cup, there was genuine joy among some Villa fans that Grealish’s wait for a first trophy at City will go on until the end of the season.
It’s fair to assume that when Grealish returns to his boyhood club in a couple of weeks, the boos will continue – if not intensify – rather than be replaced by applause for a former captain and fan’s favourite, who gave maximum effort to the club whenever he played.
On the surface, it looks as though Villa fans feel Grealish betrayed them by joining City, and his departure is a big factor in their poor start to the season.
Grealish signed a new five-year contract 13 months ago, only to depart nine months later. It didn’t help that he declared in Villa’s new kit promotional material, released just three weeks before he left, that “everyone knows what claret and blue means to me, I’ve been a Villa boy all my life, and I love playing for this club.”
However, it transpired that as part of that contract, Grealish insisted on a clause that would see him be allowed to leave if a club in the Champions League made an approach, with the fee set at a British record £100m.
From the outside, that seems a fair compromise that enabled Villa to keep their star player for another season, while also allowing him to further his own career if the opportunity came up. Villa were well-compensated to a record amount, and Grealish is now able to showcase his talents on a stage they couldn’t provide. If City weren’t willing to pay the £100m, Grealish would still be there, giving his all for Villa.
From the stands of Villa Park, though, the clause could be seen as their talismanic captain not being as committed to the club as he made out, more interested in furthering his own career – as if there’s anything wrong with wanting to play at the highest level. Fans should know by now there is no loyalty in football, and had Grealish simply wanted to leave Villa for more money he could have done so on plenty of occasions, or just run his previous contract down.
One of the accusations levelled at Grealish when Smith left was that the former manager was building a squad around his captain on the basis of his five-year contract, only for Smith to have to re-start that process after Grealish joined City, ultimately costing him his job.
The rebuild didn’t work, and Villa are two points off the relegation zone as they made the decision to replace Smith with Steven Gerrard. Grealish’s departure maybe a contributing factor to their poor form, but it’s not the sole reason, and Grealish has had no part in their record of just three wins all season.
While there are obviously some level-headed Villa reactions when it comes to Grealish, it seems some fans are missing the point when directing their anger to a player who’s not played for them since May. Maybe they should be unhappy at the executives who agreed to his release clause, and then sacked Smith just 13 games into the new season. If Steven Gerrard does well but uses them as a stepping stone to join Liverpool, will he be viewed as a traitor as well for not staying at Villa?
Similarly, opposition fans taking glee from Grealish’s supposed poor start to life at City are also missing the bigger picture.
If his transfer fee is reason for the booing, City have explained many times that they were only able to afford the £100m asking price after raising £60m of player sales in the previous year. In today’s market, a homegrown England international and club captain with a good Premier League record wouldn’t be available for much cheaper.
And Pep Guardiola has insisted on multiple occasions that Grealish has been signed for the next five years, not for one game or to provide an instant impact at City. For fans jeering his poor record in his early City career compared to last season with Villa only need to look at the likes of Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres as examples of forward players who have taken a few months to get used to Guardiola’s demands before really kicking on.
The fact he’s doing solidly, if not spectacular, is a good sign for the future. If City were worried, there would be perhaps reason to jeer or mock, but they’re not.
City will be reassured that Grealish is creating chances and getting involved, knowing the goals and assists will come. Only Bruno Fernandes has created more chances from open play in the Premier League this season (Grealish has 26), and nobody has carried the ball more times than Grealish before creating a chance (13).
Grealish is having to adapt to a completely new dynamic. He is no longer the go-to creative output, but a cog in a well-oiled machine that requires attacking players to be more patient and co-operative with the ball rather than take the initiative himself. It’s only natural he won’t be making as many headlines as he did with Villa. He’ll also be winning more games than he did last season as the table shows.
So when the boos come at Villa Park on December 1, Grealish will know he has nothing to hide and nothing to prove. It won’t be long before they’re jeering him because he’s winning trophies at City, justifying his very reasons to leave in the first place.