You can please some of the people all of the time and you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. There was a decidedly resigned air about the announcement made earlier this week by the Aston Villa midfield player Jack Grealish that he will be looking to play his international football for England rather than the Republic of Ireland, even though he has represented the latter at under seventeen, under eighteen and under twenty-one level over the course of the last four years or so. This is a player with excellent potential for the future, who may well have been capable of going on to represent either country with distinction. International football, however, only allows this decision to be made the once, and the country of his birth ended up winning the day.
There has been considerable conjecture over the last few days over what the rationale behind Grealish’s eventual decision might have been, much of which has likely been at least partly fuelled by the amount of time that it seemed to take Grealish to make a decision. When the player rejected a call-up from the Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill in August of last year, many Irish supporters considered his decision to have been made in all terms bar formalities, but the England manager Roy Hodgson expressed his frustration at the player’s failure to make a formal decision on the matter earlier this month and in such non-committal terms were continuing Irish optimism fairly firmly planted.
Further eyebrows were raised following comments made by the player’s agent. Jonathan Bartlett of the Stellar Group, a company named without apparent irony, was speaking about Gareth Bale at that recent cavalcade of the dead-eyed, Soccerex, when he stated that, “He could have qualified [to play for England] through his grandmother and I tell you that it has cost him millions and millions of pounds.” The message, however, was loud and clear. International football in the twenty-first century is little more than another means to an end for the upwardly mobile professional footballer, and opportunity to make a little more money from commercial tie-ins and other sources.
We may ponder that this is the nature of the modern game, a game that saw all other considerations overtaken by the relentless and apparently limitless pursuit of greater and greater wealth. Is it fair, however, to level this accusation at Grealish? After all, these words came from his agent, not from his own mouth, whilst Grealish’s own public statement was brief and to the point:
I have decided to give my allegiance to England. It was not an easy decision as Ireland has a special place with me through my family. However, I have decided to represent the country of my birth.
Of course, no player in their right mind would say, “I have opted to play international football for the Republic of Ireland rather than England because doing so would entitle me to buy three new baby Bentleys and put down a further payment towards the deposit for an island lair that I intend to live in upon my retirement from professional football.” But it may well be that Grealish, who was born in Solihull and had lived all of his life in the West Midlands, feels affinity towards both England and the Republic of Ireland. In this case, why shouldn’t he have made the decision on the basis of how much money he could make from it? It seems like as reliable a metric as any.
Alternatively, and this is not a question that seems to have troubled too many of those that have expended their energies pontificating on the subject over the course of the last three days or so, perhaps Jack Grealish doesn’t feel a great deal of affinity towards either the Republic of Ireland or England. Young people growing up in the twenty-first century now live in more of a global village than we have ever known before. At work, Grealish is surrounded by a coterie of players from the four corners of the earth. He can, in the same way that anybody can these days, pick and choose his media from anywhere in the world. If he was relatively untouched by any notions of patriotism, again the issue of how he can make the most money from it all again becomes the basis for this to be an understandable decision.
This is all conjecture, of course, and the fact of the matter is that we are unlikely to find out the exact workings behind his decision at any point in the near future, unless it is decided that the subject would be good for a chapter or two in one of the autobiographies that will doubtlessly find their way onto bookstore shelves in the event of him fulfilling the promise that he has so far shown in his short career. What such speculation does do, however, is remind us of the fundamental disconnect between players and supporters. For the professional football, the game itself is a job, and it’s not just any old job. The wealth and riches that are available to those who do break through may well be more astronomical than ever, but the professional footballer still faces the certainty of having outlived his usefulness by the time he’s in his mid-thirties, whilst injury or falling out of form or favour can easily curtail the careers of even the most ambitious even earlier than that.
The football supporter doesn’t feel these pressures, and may well have next to no understanding of the extent to which professional footballers can only consider what they do to be a job and nothing more. Over the years, though, the facade of “loyalty” has been built up to such a point that players are now perpetually required to attempt to speak the language of supporters, the language of loyalty, of unquestioning support, of “kissing the badge.” At a club level, we have come to understand this. There are, nowadays, few players who transfer from one club to another and receive criticism for the act of leaving itself. They may well be criticised for the way in which they handle themselves whilst transfer negotiations are being conducted, but the desire to move on and better oneself is one that, even if it is often begrudgingly, most supporters understand.
International football, however, taps into something more base. Any decision of which international team to play for is usually interpreted as an expression of the identity of the player concerned, and the friction that this causes when we consider our culture of “kissing the badge” and the additional issues that raise their heads whenever notions of nationhood begin to surface. It seems pretty clear that Jack Grealish cannot be a great patriot for any nation, given the amount of time that it took for him to reach a decision over which national team to represent, if selected, and he can certainly be forgiven for allowing himself to breathe a sigh of relief at having finally made a decision that was never, ever going to please all of the people, all of the time.
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