Jack Grealish went quiet as he thought about the question. He recognised the size of the comparison and, initially, struggled to find the right word but then came a smile.
Actually, it was far more than a smile. He was beaming, consumed in the moment. Grealish had been asked whether he knew about Paul Gascoigne and what he made of being likened to him. It would have been easy to be diplomatic or duck the subject but the glint in his eye told you everything.
‘Do you what?’ the Aston Villa midfielder replied. ‘I don’t really see myself as him but I would love to be like him, the way that he played football. He played with such… joy. I think everyone who watched him could see that. That is what I want to do.
Jack Grealish has welcomed comparisons to former England legend Paul Gascoigne
Grealish said he ‘would love to be like him’ as the former Spurs star ‘played with such joy’
‘One of the biggest compliments for people to say to you is you make them happy watching football. I’d love to get compared to Gazza. He’s an absolute icon. Along with Wayne Rooney, he’s one of the greatest England players over the last 30 years. If they were the top two, Gazza would be my first.’
It must be stressed here that Grealish was not getting ahead of himself. Putting himself in the same bracket as Gascoigne on the back of a man-of-the-match performance in a friendly against Wales would have been foolhardy — reckless even.
Gascoigne’s England career spanned 10 years, two major tournaments, 57 caps and he was the face of a generation. Grealish has played 90 minutes for his country and might not even start on Sunday when Belgium arrive in town for a Nations League qualifier.
Grealish put in a man of the match display with a superb assist in the 3-0 win against Wales
Gascoigne was the face of a generation for England and played for the Three Lions for 10 years
What was so endearing about this exchange, though, was the enthusiasm and the happiness radiating from the 25-year-old.
Grealish is not like modern players, it is not all about athleticism and power and speed. He dribbles and he is adventurous and, gradually, he is winning over Gareth Southgate, showing him he can be relied upon. It would not be wrong to suggest, after all, that the England head coach harboured some doubts.
‘Everyone knows one of my long-term goals was to get into the England squad and play for England,’ said Grealish. ‘Now that I am here, I want to cement my place. I was absolutely desperate to come here.’
Southgate had been blunt last month when he reeled off the names of the players who were ahead of Grealish to get in the squad and also pointed out that the Villa star would not be considered as a midfielder. It could have been dispiriting but, if anything, it was galvanising.
The midfielder is hoping to cement his place in Gareth Southgate’s plans for Euro 2020
‘When you talk about positions, I had a long chat with the manager in the last camp,’ said Grealish, who made his debut as a substitute in Denmark last month. ‘He is good for that, you know? He lets you speak to him and he lets you speak your mind.
‘I said to him: “I see myself playing as No 8 for England. I see myself playing as No10. I see myself as a left-winger or a right-winger. Wherever I am on the pitch, I will play.” I am one of these people who just loves football. I’m a footballer. I couldn’t care less where I play.
‘In the wing positions, there is so much talent. We’ve probably got the top three or four in the world when you look at Raheem [Sterling], Harry [Kane], Marcus [Rashford] and Jadon [Sancho]. It will be difficult to get into them positions. Let’s be honest, it’s the truth, isn’t it?
‘You look at these guys and the numbers they have got over the last few years and you understand why they are touted as the best wingers in the world.
He has enjoyed a successful start to the Premier League season with his club Aston Villa
‘I fully agree with that. I have full respect for that. But I also have respect for how much ability I have got.
‘I know what I can do. But the last two or three years I have played half my games on the wing and half my games as a No 8 or a No 10. I fully believe that I can do both going forward. The manager knows that now.’
So impressed was Southgate on Thursday, he called Grealish a ‘matador’, teasing and tormenting Welsh foes before wriggling, untroubled, out of danger. Grealish’s confidence is soaring and it would be fascinating to see him in a better game against a higher stand of opposition.
There is stiff competition for places in the England squad but Grealish is up for the challenge
One suspects he would not be found wanting. As a teenager, he was once so troubled by nerves that he fainted the night before a game during an England youth camp but there are no such worries now. He is brimming with confidence and eager to show that he can make lofty comparisons ring true.
‘I’m just so grateful and thankful to the manager for making it happen,’ said Grealish. ‘I want to have a long England career and get many caps.
‘The aim now is just to do it on a regular basis, every weekend like some of the players in this squad like Harry, Raheem, Marcus. That’s why these guys are rated so highly by the football world because they do it week in, week out. That’s what I want to aim to do.’
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