‘The way Jack Grealish plays is identical to how he was in Gaelic Football Under 13s’, Aston Villa captain’s former youth coach reveals foundations of his success
- Jack Grealish played for the John Mitchels club in Solihull as a teenager
- He was already on Aston Villa’s books while he was playing Gaelic Football
- HIs former coaches though admit Covid has hit their club hard in lockdown
‘There is nothing better than the buzz of watching a young kid coming through and making it in our senior team,’ says Kevin McGinnity. ‘I tell the coaches of our younger teams that if they can move kids through, that is their trophy.’
One of those kids is now a star of the Premier League and an England international, having honed his talent in the Gaelic football leagues of Warwickshire.
Jack Grealish played for the John Mitchels club — of which McGinnity is chairman — in Solihull, Birmingham as a teenager and those who coached him then say he shows many of his early skills today.
Jack Grealish has gone on to become a star at Aston Villa since his Gaelic Football days
‘When I watch him now, he’s identical to how he was in our Under 13 team,’ recalls McGinnity, a Villa fan who wastes no time ribbing club secretary JP Walsh, a Manchester United supporter, about recent results in the Premier League.
‘We couldn’t get him to play for us every time we wanted because he was on Villa’s books but when he could get there he would and it just lifted everyone to have someone with that talent in the team.’
Walsh’s father, 71-year-old Jimmy, remains a driving force. ‘Jimmy won’t admit it,’ says McGinnity, ‘but in dark times in the past, the club wouldn’t have survived without him.’
Like many sports clubs across the country, these are anxious days for John Mitchels. The national lockdown meant they had to close their doors again, placing even greater financial pressure on the club as it attempts to keep going.
The midfielder played for the John Mitchels club (above) in Solihull, Birmingham as a teenager
They had to shut up shop despite the hours of thought and labour devoted to re-opening in June — particularly difficult when the club does not have a permanent home.
There are many examples of strife but one will suffice. For a recent county final, social distancing rules meant that only 60 spectators from each club could attend and it was left to McGinnity and Walsh to decide on the lucky few.
‘Normally I’d really enjoy a week like that, building up to a final and thinking about who would play and in which positions,’ he says. ‘But the committee had to come up with a list and it was very difficult.
‘How do you decide who deserves to go? Normally there might be up to 2,000 people at a game like that but we were limited to 60 per team — so many people were disappointed. It is not an experience we want to repeat.’
The club has about 250 playing members across its men’s and women’s teams, from Under Sevens to senior level, both Gaelic football and hurling. They compete against other sides in the Midlands and are the oldest GAA club in Warwickshire, having been founded in 1939.
He has become the club’s captain and one of the stars of the Premier League in recent times
McGinnity and Walsh are keen to point out that a significant number of their members do not have Irish connections but embraced the game thanks to the diligence of the committee members.
With so many other sports and activities competing for children’s interests, the pair are rightly proud of their efforts to keep the game alive in the West Midlands.
Grealish is not the league’s only graduate, either.
Coventry midfielder Callum O’Hare and Dan Crowley, of Birmingham City, both played, as did boxer Galal Yafai, a gold medallist at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
‘After the first lockdown, we had to really stretch our resources to see how we and our members could help to keep the game alive,’ explains Walsh. ‘Our main goal then was to get kids back enjoying the sport. Back then, competition felt a mile away. It was all about getting people back playing.
‘All we want is for our members to make Gaelic football their first port of call on a Sunday.
‘We didn’t charge membership fees for last season. It didn’t seem right.’
His form has also seen him emerge as a key player in Gareth Southgate’s England squad
The relative lack of exposure compared to football, cricket and rugby means that, even in easier times, GAA clubs in the UK have to work extraordinarily hard to attract and retain the interest of youngsters.
To do so during a pandemic is doubly difficult.
McGinnity speaks for all grassroots clubs across the country who were frustrated at having their wings clipped a second time.
‘Are we concerned about our future? 100 per cent,’ adds McGinnity. ‘Another year of not charging for membership and we would be in big trouble.
‘If EFL clubs can go out of business then nobody is immune.
‘I love sport. Part of the reason I love it is because of how much it helps people — it’s helped me in difficult times. For people of all ages, it’s a wonderful way to forget about your problems.’
It seems appropriate that the final word should go to Jimmy Walsh, who has done so much to keep John Mitchels going.
‘Kids need to run around,’ he says. ‘They need to get outdoors and get exercise. It’s vital.’
The captain of Aston Villa would undoubtedly agree.
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