There’s one particular player in every team that makes things happen. In extremely dark circumstances, they rise to the occasion with lightning, taking games at the scruff of the neck. Jack Grealish is proving to be that shining star for Aston Villa.
Dean Smith’s expression said it all. He was left red-faced by the officiating against Rotherham on Wednesday. Villa was reduced to 10 men after just 36 minutes. Tyrone Mings was adjudged to have handled Joe Newell’s innocent-looking pull-back from the left.
“We can talk long and hard about the quality of the players we have got but this was about spirit,’ Smith whined. “We had to go and get emotional control in the second half because we felt the officials had let us down a little bit.”
Losing a key player with almost an hour to play is a difficult situation for managers, especially after squandering a free goalscoring opportunity prior. Tammy Abraham failed to take advantage when Clark Robertson brought down Grealish. Marek Rodak got down to his left to turn the penalty around the post.
Will Vaulks didn’t make such error, blasting home the penalty straight down the middle. Smith responded by sacrificing Albert Adomah and Anwar el Ghazi for Mile Jedinak and Jonathan Kodjia respectively. Jackpot. The latter made an instant impact.
Kodjia notched his first league goal of the year in the same position Abraham flopped. Semi Ajayi was punished for handling in the area and Kodjia tucked away from the penalty calmly to restore parity.
Then came the moment of magic. Grealish started a deep move, drifted past four players and then played a one-two with Mohamed El Mohamedy, who cut the ball back for him to coolly slot home. It was a thing of beauty and pure class synonymous with top players.
That singular moment of brilliance turned things around for the Villans. Grealish’s performance typifies maturity. He is no longer that overrated youngster with nothing to show. Now 23, the midfielder is matured, shouldering more responsibilities without being soaked in emotions.
Recently against Birmingham, he showcased an ability to weave through a congested midfield, to ride challenge after challenge and keep pushing the ball straight through the heart of the opposition. Grealish was omnipresent. His finish was brilliant.
The Three Lion hopeful is thriving with the extra burden of wearing the captain armband. Having missed almost three months through injury, he was handed the role by Smith against Derby and capped it up with a superb goal.
“It can’t get much better than being captain of your club,” he told BBC WM. “I’m loving it. I’m absolutely thriving off it. We’re all coming in with smiles on our faces.”
It’s no surprise to see the 23-year-old at the heart of Villas’s recent turnaround in form. The Villans won seven consecutive matches since Grealish returned, catapulting Smith’s men into an unlikely playoff spot.
Villa is now only four points adrift of their neighbours, fourth-placed, managerless West Bromwich Albion. And if they can keep up their winning run by beating Bristol, they would match their best sequence of results since Ron Saunders’ side reeled off eight straight wins in their promotion and League Cup-winning 1974-75 season.
The Villans would be hoping Grealish doesn’t strive with the massive burden.
Written by Toby Prince
Follow Toby on Twitter @prinzToby
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