On Monday morning, two footballers, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane, had a decision to make. Both are at the heart of money-spinning transfer sagas, both are the homegrown talisman their team looks to for inspiration and, for long periods, could not even entertain the possibility of losing. One of them got in his car and went to training, the other did not.
Jack Grealish and Harry Kane have been international teammates all summer, and they could end the month together at club level, too. Despite Pep Guardiola’s claims to the contrary, Manchester City seem able and willing to pay for them both, even though they will cost north of £100m each.
Media perception is a funny thing. Although Euro 2020 changed a lot in this regard, Grealish has long been viewed as the archetypal young, arrogant, flashy footballer in certain sections of the press and his misdemeanours have been gleefully reported.
Kane, meanwhile, is the epitome of professionalism and, to his credit, he has earned that title. His rise at Tottenham Hotspur was not foreseen by virtue of his natural ability as a youngster; it was down to his attitude in the face of unspectacular loan spells at Millwall, Norwich City and Leicester City. He has dragged Spurs along with him at times, England too. But only one of them refused to go to work this week and it wasn’t Grealish.
Their situations are remarkably similar. Grealish is to Aston Villa what Kane is to Spurs, not just a local boy done good who relates to the fans but absolutely critical to the make up of the team. His blend of skill and leadership, nurtured at Bodymoor Heath training ground over the last eight years, saved Villa from Premier League relegation two seasons ago, just as it had galvanised promotion the year before. Grealish loves Aston Villa and Kane loves Spurs, they both signed long-term contracts gifting their clubs control in this situation. Grealish has stayed quiet and got on with his job but Kane has stayed away.
There are murmurs that Kane is planning to return later this week and believes everything has been blown out of proportion. But that won’t fly with the fans who loved him enough to understand his desire to leave in the first place and didn’t turn on him for it and who saw themselves in him. Whichever way this is spun, it does not look good for Kane, who has built an image as the squeaky-clean ambassador of English football, especially when Grealish is keeping his counsel so well at the same time.
The context is very different, though. Villa have long since understood their position on Grealish and have acted accordingly. They are desperate to keep him and are offering him a new contract despite the fact he only agreed terms a few months ago but are also preparing themselves for his exit in the wake of City’s humongous offer for his services. The arrival of Emi Buendía from Norwich City is just the start, with Leon Bailey, Bayer Leverkusen’s rapid and dynamic wide player, through the door as well, and a more direct replacement for Grealish clearly in the offing. Emile Smith Rowe was their first port of call, but after that failed, they have turned their attention to Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse.
Kane is locked into a long-term deal and has just turned 28. Spurs have gone from the Champions League final to the UEFA Conference League in just over two years but that slide has led to Daniel Levy, a notoriously hard-nosed negotiator, digging his heels in further. He has made it clear that no sale to a Premier League rival is possible, while a club from abroad would need to pay £150m, a sum almost nobody can afford.
Kane’s frustration at the current events is understandable. He has made it clear he wants to win trophies and feels he needs to go elsewhere to do that, but poor planning on his part has not helped him. Going on strike is unlikely to appease Levy, either.
Villa’s approach has been excellent. It should be a model for how clubs in a similar position navigate an unforgiving transfer market. Tottenham tried a similar approach after selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid but the subsequent influx of talent didn’t gel and unbalanced the squad. If Dean Smith can recruit three players, two of whom are already more or less through the door, with the Grealish money, he may just strike the perfect balance and be able to wean the team off his influence.
Since promotion, Villa have thrown money around and not all of it has stuck, but their progression has been steady. Naturally, they’ll be looking to push the top 10 this season and doing so without the heartbeat of their side will be difficult but they’ve given themselves a great chance and part of the reason for that is the fact they have swallowed their pride, maximised their greatest asset and got the highest price possible. It isn’t done yet, but it is getting to the point of no return.
Kane’s situation is descending into a real mess which may make for a sticky ending. His dream of walking off into the sunset a Spurs hero and going onto win at City is not set in stone anymore. But for Grealish, the mutual benefit is clear and Villa could go onto succeed without him.
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