With socks down, hair slicked back and calves bulging, there is something immediately striking about Manchester City’s record signing Jack Grealish.
An alien travelling to the Etihad for the first time would probably identify him as the best player before a ball is even kicked.
Quite frankly, nobody could carry themselves that way without being ridiculously good at football. It’s the pink boots in Sunday League vibe.
Especially not a 16-year-old, turning up to senior training at Aston Villa for the first time.
“When did I first meet Jack?” – Villa legend Gabby Agbonlahor sits down with talkSPORT and scans his brain.
“It was when he came and trained with the first team under Paul Lambert.
“I remember seeing this little kid with his socks down to his shins.
“Us older pros, brought up old school, we were shocked with his socks and shin pads.
“Once he got the ball, everyone knew there was a reason why he was different, the confidence with the socks.
“Every other player would come socks pulled up, big shin pads, but he knew he was special.
“Everyone was shocked at how good he was.”
He adds: “In training, he’s outstanding. I used to boot him up in the air and kick him because I couldn’t get near him.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever trained with.”
Without going full Love Island on you guys, Grealish became something of a heartthrob during England’s Euro 2020 campaign.
He’s probably the closest thing to a modern-day David Beckham, with the vanity to match..
“He’s always in the mirror, doing his hair,” Agbonlahor jokes. “Before training, after training. Whenever he’s out and about, he wants his hair to look perfect.
“It’s gone to another level now, whenever you see him, it looks like he’s had a haircut an hour before.”
Agbonlahor and his teammates knew they were watching someone special, someone who would eventually become the most expensive Premier League signing in history.
From one boyhood Villa fan to another, Agbonlahor believes this is only the start for Grealish, having witnessed the talent first hand.
“I think he can go all the way,” the former forward predicts. “I got laughed at about six months ago when I compared him to [former Barca star Andres] Iniesta, the way he plays. A lot of people will look at that and see what I was trying to say.
“He’s at a massive club now. For me, there’s no reason why he can’t get the Ballon d’Or. He’s got every bit of talent needed for that.”
With so many chapters to the Grealish story already written, it certainly doesn’t feel like the start for a man who is still only 25.
Agbonlahor has been there for most of it, first as a sceptical teammate, then more recently as a fan and a friend.
They both grew up in Birmingham and fantasised about playing for Aston Villa, with Grealish’s dream becoming reality at the age of six.
Within ten years, there was a place for him on Villa’s bench for a Premier League match against Chelsea, and by 2014 he was making his debut against Man City.
Fast forward seven years and the Premier League champions themselves would snap up that scrawny kid with the big calves for £100million, but let’s not oversimplify.
Quite a lot has happened to Grealish in that time, not all of it good.
As a teenager, the midfielder ran the risk of developing a ‘bad boy’ reputation among the tabloids after a string of misbehaviours.
Tim Sherwood had to warn him against inhaling nitrous oxide, Remi Garde banished him to the youth team briefly for staying in Everton to go out clubbing after a defeat, and he was even told off by former chairman Tony Xia for partying.
As recently as 2020, Grealish was fined by Villa for ignoring government guidance and going out during the pandemic.
But those stories have become less common, and Grealish writes most headlines with his feet these days.
Looking back, Agbonlahor picks out the first moment at Aston Villa which turned the man into a superstar.
“The moment I thought he would be a top player was the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 2015 at Wembley,” he continues.
“To be that confident as a young player. When I was that age, I would’ve crumbled and tried to do the basics.
“That was the game when he stood out to Aston Villa fans and we realised he was special.”
Grealish’s talent was never in doubt, but many questioned whether or not he would make it.
When Villa were relegated in 2016, Grealish played 16 league games and lost all of them, setting a new record.
Still young, it took Grealish a couple of years to settle into professional football, and life in the Championship, away from the spotlight, probably helped.
By 2018, Tottenham wanted to sign him, and Grealish even waved goodbye to fans before the deal dramatically fell through at the eleventh hour.
Villa supporters will forever be grateful for that twist of fate, as Grealish brought them back to the Premier League during the 2018/19 season, featuring a memorable match at St Andrew’s against arch-rivals Birmingham.
Agbonlahor recalls: “My favourite moment was the local derby against Birmingham at St Andrew’s. I knew how much this meant to him before the game, because he always said he wanted to do what I did, and score against Birmingham at St Andrew’s.
“The way the game went – he was attacked by a fan, stayed on the pitch, and it was inevitable he would get the goal after what he’d been through. I think it was his destiny to score that goal.
“He enjoyed the reception he got. I’m sure if you asked him, it would be one of his favourite moments.”
Back in the Premier League as a changed man, Grealish would soon show everyone the talent Agbonlahor had seen in training all those years.
A wonderful goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2019 sparked the beginning of two season which made Grealish one of the most admired players in England.
“It was a goal that made even Manchester United want him,” Agbonlahor says.
“Not many people go to Old Trafford with the confidence to cut inside and bend it into the top corner.”
Now an England star with the world at his feet after untold moments of magic, this story is far from over.
And even the most anguished Villa fans, like Agbonlahor, will struggle to follow the rest of this tale without rooting for its protagonist.
Bidding farewell to his mate, Agbonlahor says: “Thanks for everything you’ve done for Aston Villa, for me, for the fans, he’s a legend. Hopefully one day he’ll follow in Ashley Young’s footsteps and come back!”
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