The moment Jack Grealish repeated the word for emphasis, you knew how close he had come to the line.
The Aston Villa forward had ended his night in Middlesbrough with an ice pack strapped tightly to his right shin, an image that caused a sharp breath as it was beamed back into millions of living rooms. That, he emphasized, was nothing to worry about and everything was fine.
What worried him, however, was a moment early in the 1-0 win over Austria when he got the first of what turned out to be many overzealous tackles, one that left him shuddering. Grealish is a tough, honest customer so it made the detail he provided all the more relevant.
Friday 11 June
Saturday June 12
Sunday 13 June
Jack Grealish has issued a warning to his rivals ahead of the European Championship this month
“It really hurt,” Grealish said. “It was when Jesse (Lingard) gave me the ball to the left. That was a tackle that went to my shin, where I was in quite a bit of pain. But I think I have this – I don’t know if it’s a quality, I’d say it is – of driving challenges.
“Even though I get dirty and go down, I ride them pretty good… I’m going to touch wood there! The way I play, I get kicked all the time and I can’t really run with the ball and think in the back of my mind, “If I get kicked here, I’m one kick away…”‘
Grealish didn’t finish the sentence, but everyone knew what he meant: one kick away from the tournament. The history of leading up to major tournaments is littered with last-minute fitness disasters, and every player knows the hand that can share fate.
The England star, 25, was on the receiving end of the rough treatment against Austria
“Trent (Alexander-Arnold) did that just by kicking the ball away,” Grealish said, referring to the problem that took the Liverpool right out of the game over the next four to six weeks. “So it’s one of those (things). If it ever happens, it’s part of it. That’s part of the way I play.’
At a time when many would expect players to think about self-preservation, Grealish’s wonderfully confident outlook isn’t going to change. No one in the Premier League gets kicked more often or wins more mistakes, but the rough treatment has never been unpleasant.
Should he start one of England’s group matches – and there should be a significant chance of that after the liberating way he played against Austria – Grealish knows opponents will chop him away. But that won’t lead to him being sent to the sidelines.
“Martin O’Neill said to me when I was younger, ‘You never, ever want to get kicked in your own half because it’s no use’ — there’s nothing you can do there,” Grealish explained. “You should try to get kicked around the edge of the box or into the box as much as possible.
Grealish says he is used to tough challenges and is happy to take them on for the team
Grealish has impressed since making his debut with calls for the Villa star to start on June 13
“I was a little young and I thought, ‘Ah, okay.’ But now I understand why. I’ll take the kick to help my team, for sure. We’ve been blessed with incredible free kicks here. Trent, Tripps (Kieran Trippier), H (Harry Kane). As long as I can get as many mistakes as possible around the penalty area…’
It’s impossible not to get hot for this 25-year-old. There was a moment not long ago when it looked like he would struggle to gain Gareth Southgate’s trust, but here he is, on the eve of the main event, with many judges determined to start against Croatia.
Perhaps it is telling that Southgate felt compelled to hand him the No. 7 jersey. The squad is synonymous with big, daring talents, the most famous of which is arguably one of Grealish’s boyhood heroes.
“What young lad didn’t look up to David Beckham?” asked Grealish. “If I have half the career he had, I’ll be over the moon. I always looked up to him when I was younger for the most important things that stand out during his career.
The 25-year-old has been given the number 7 shirt and wants to make history this summer
“He had a lot of great moments, but the goal against Greece (which sent England to the 2002 World Cup)… every kid looked up to him. I sure did. Number 7 was a bit of an iconic number in English terms. So many great players have worn it and hopefully I can follow in their footsteps.”
You wouldn’t bet against it. This isn’t about comparing Grealish to Beckham or Paul Gascoigne or anyone else – it’s unfair and unnecessary – but he knows there is an opportunity to make history. Without a doubt he is ready.
“In 2018, the whole country came together,” said Grealish, who watched the last World Cup on holiday in Ibiza. “I actually said to someone after the match in Austria how nice it is to play in a stadium with England fans who support different clubs, but they are there to support you.
“It was my first time doing it. Most of the guys here had played with fans before, but for me it was my first time and I loved it. I got goosebumps when I sang the national anthem and also listened to the audience. Hopefully we all have a good summer.’