'Tis more blessed to give than to receive...
That’s the compassionate phrase uttered across households in the run-up to Christmas every year – and one that Jack Grealish is living up to right now.
As thoughts turn to the festive season, with the winter World Cup now in full swing, Grealish delivered the ultimate present to 11-year-old City and England fan Finlay this week.
Grealish scored in his debut World Cup game in Qatar but, rather than have the spotlight shine on him, he let it dazzle his new mate.
In a moment that made ever City fan smile, Grealish performed a special, dedicated goal celebration as he put England 6-2 up against Iran in the opening Group B game.
Finlay, like Jack’s sister, Holly, has cerebral palsy and he’s been hugely impressed by the way Jack involves her in everything he does.
Finlay sent a letter to express his gratitude and Jack returned the favour with a signed City shirt before surprising him at the CFA where he plays every Monday as part of the disability football team.
After striking up a friendship, Jack told Finlay he could select his next goal celebration, which he wonderfully performed after his debut World Cup goal.
Whatever presents are in the offing in Finlay’s house this Christmas, nothing will surely better that one.
For Grealish, he clearly does have his sights set on a special festive gift of his own in a few weeks’ time – the World Cup trophy.
It would undoubtedly be his best Christmas present ever, trumping his previous favourite – an orange BMX he received in his early teens.
It must be said, that Christmas morning didn’t start well, though, as Grealish was sent into a rage when he spotted no bike in the family lounge.
“I came down and it was the first thing I looked for. And it wasn’t there. So I was half fuming really,” said Grealish.
“My dad said, ‘go and make us a cup of tea’. I thought ‘hold on, I’m not making you a cup of tea, I haven’t got my present’.
“Obviously as I walked into the kitchen, the BMX was there. That was a moment I’ll never forget because I was so happy.”
In the coming weeks in Qatar, Grealish won’t want to just be along for the ride. He’ll want to get bums on seats, put defenders in a spin and lead from the front.
SHOP GREALISH-RELATED ITEMS AT THE CITYSTORE
If his role, as it was against Iran, is as a super sub, he will look to help the team change gear in search of success.
One thing is for sure, if he gets his hands on something very similar in colour to his beloved bike during this festive period, he’ll be one happy lad.
To be in with a chance of doing that, he’ll need to help the Three Lions reach a second major final in succession on 18 December, after his unforgettable European Championship last time out.
Euro 2020 was the Summer of Love for Grealish. He’ll be hoping that World Cup 2022 ends up being the Winter of Worship – with the country exalting England finally winning their first major tournament since 1966.
Grealish was unmistakably the poster boy for the Three Lions as they captured the hearts of a nation on their way to a first major tournament final in 55 years.
He wore the iconic No.7 shirt. He wore an equally memorable hairstyle. And he delivered, most importantly, his usual swashbuckling style of play when called upon by Gareth Southgate.
The roar of the crowd to ‘Bring on Grealish’ as he warmed up on the sidelines echoed around Wembley Stadium throughout each game.
And when he did arrive on to the stage he was born to perform on, no-one could doubt the impact he made.
It was seen most vividly in the Round of 16 win over Germany – the first knock-out victory over them since 1966! – and all in the space of just 22 minutes!
Grealish had a hand in England’s first, scored by Raheem Sterling – and then put the ball on Harry Kane’s plate for the decisive second.
As cameos go, that was electrifying to say the least.
Victory followed over Ukraine and Denmark and momentum was genuinely with the Three Lions.
But they were denied their moment in the sun by a gloomy penalty shootout defeat to Italy, which left the nation crestfallen.
Grealish, with time to reflect, opted to focus on the positives of the tournament which cemented his place as one of the country’s most charismatic and magnetic stars.
He was optimistic as he discussed that six weeks of fandom, fun and football.
“Now, I look back on it, I swear it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said a proud Grealish.
“It was just the best six weeks ever. I absolutely loved it.
“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country.
“For us as a team, it was just unbelievable to have the whole country behind us. I felt like, because of how well we’d done, we’d brought everyone together.
“It was a summer that I’ll never ever forget, and it makes me want to strive for more and have that feeling again.”
Grealish came on against Scotland in the second game of the Group D qualifying stages, started against Czech Republic in the final group game and then came on against Germany in the Round of 16, Denmark in the semi-final and Italy in the final.
It was touch and go whether he’d even be fit to go to the tournament in the first place as he recovered from a shin problem that saw him absent for Aston Villa from February to May and kept him out for 12 games.
But if we chart his journey even further back, it’s remarkable that he was even playing for England.
Grealish, you see, started international life with Republic of Ireland, an association he qualified for through his grandparents.
He worked his way through the age groups from Under-17 to Under-21, enjoying representing Eire alongside his Irish claret and blue mates like Mickey Drennan and Samir Carruthers.
He was even awarded the Under-21 ‘Player of the Year’ by the Football Association of Ireland in March 2015.
But when it came to choosing who to play for on the senior stage, six months later, it was England that won his heart.
Roy Hodgson was delighted. Martin O’Neill much less so.
Grealish received his first Three Lions call-up from a very familiar source – then Under-21 boss Southgate, who selected him for his squad for the 2016 Toulon Tournament.
After making his debut as a 72nd-minute substitute for Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a 1–0 win over Portugal, he grabbed a couple of goals on his first start in a big 7-1 win over Guinea.
England went on to win the tournament for the first time since 1994, thanks to a 2-1 victory over France, with a squad also including the likes of Jordan Pickford, James Ward-Prowse, Callum Chambers, Matt Targett and Nathan Redmond.
Southgate left the Under-21s four months later to take over the senior reigns, but Grealish remained around the squad under Aidy Boothroyd, who picked him for the 2017 European Under-21 Finals in Poland as England reached the semi-finals.
What followed, sadly, was a three-year spell in the wilderness for the exciting playmaker, due in no small measure to his club side, Aston Villa, battling to get out of the Championship.
Their relegation in 2015/16 seemed inevitable as they went through four managers during the campaign.
It started with Tim Sherwood, who’d rejuvenated a sinking claret and blue side the previous term and saved them from relegation.
He lost Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley and Christian Benteke as the new season dawned, with the departure of that established spine of the team proving catastrophic.
Sherwood was a firm admirer of the emerging Grealish, seeing huge potential in the playmaker, even stressing at the start of the season that he wouldn’t sell him for £60m.
Walking into Bodymoor Heath after Sherwood came Kevin MacDonald, Remi Garde and Eric Black but none could arrest the slide to the Championship.
Hope was high with new ownership and new management in 2016/17 but Roberto Di Matteo was swiftly replaced by Steve Bruce.
Villa lost the play-off final of 2017/18 to Fulham and Bruce, following a difficult start to the next campaign, was replaced by Dean Smith.
Grealish was focused fully on returning the Villans to the top table of English football and, with the arrival of Smith, a club record 10-match winning run and a play-off final victory over Derby County, that aim was realised at the end of the 2018/19 campaign.
It was a team effort but Smith knew the pedigree of player he had in Grealish to lead the charge back to the bright lights of the Premier League.
“He is a top talent. A top lad as well. Anybody who works with him will tell you that,” said Smith.
“It was wonderful working with him. He has got immense talent.
“A little side of his mentality as well - I think I had been at Aston Villa for about six months, I said in the press that he was one of the best players I had worked with.
"He came to see me the following morning, he had obviously watched my interview, and he wanted to know who the other players were that were as good as him.
“It wasn’t him being big headed because he has just got that hunger and desire to be the best and wanting to get better.”
The following campaign, Smith and Grealish – two boyhood claret and blue fans – spearheaded a survival season in the top-flight as they finished 17th, with a last day draw at West Ham ensuring safety.
Improvement was pronounced in 2020/21 and their 11th place finish contained a remarkable 7-2 victory over Liverpool, Grealish having a hand in five of the goals, scoring two himself.
That form led to Grealish’s inclusion in Southgate’s Euros squad and, eventually, a high-profile move here to City on a six-year contract that will run until 2027.
Fast forward to the present day and he’s one of five City players in Qatar wearing the Three Lions shirt.
He’s excited for what is to come during a tournament which saw England show their class against Iran in their opening Group B game.
Grealish is entertaining himself with episodes of ‘I’m a Celebrity’ on ITV, where he’s cheering on City women’s legend, Jill Scott. He's also been watching his favourite current film again - ‘Elvis’, Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic charting the life of one of America’s greatest musical performers.
For Grealish and England, it’s not exactly Now or Never. But they’ll hope to get fans All Shook Up in search of glory and ensure there’s no Heartbreak Hotel.