Last Sunday’s second-city derby provided a tale of poetic justice which will leave an infamous stain on the reputation of Birmingham City Football Club. The Midlands club’s chequered history with hooliganism awoke from hibernation and was thrust into the national spotlight when a supporter, appropriately donning a peaky blinders-esque flat cap, channelled his inner Tommy Shelby and made a beeline for Jack Grealish.
After taking an unexpected punch to the face and being routinely booed by the home supporters for the duration of the match, Grealish decided the fixture with one telling swipe of his left boot. The derby-winning goal sent the 23-year-old into a state of delirium in which the sweet taste of revenge left him unable to decide whether to lord the decisive goal over the home fans or to embrace the thousands of travelling supporters. He opted for the latter.
The post-match narrative naturally surrounded the now-jailed supporters’ inexplicable actions on a day which belonged to Grealish. The local-rivalry between Birmingham City and Aston Villa was the fundamental driver behind the infamous attack, but it was no coincidence that Dean Smith’s poster boy was on the receiving end of a flailing fist.
A quick rewind into Grealish’s past can explain how his identity has been constructed to match a stereotype which is often applied to young English players. In 2015, shortly before his 20th birthday, Villa’s prodigy was pictured passed out in the streets of Tenerife, with a Cigarette packets not so subtly placed beside him to boost the opportunist photographers’ chances of going viral on social media. It sure did the trick.
In the space of just a few hours the footballing world were aware of the next big star’s holiday exploits, cementing his reputation as another prodigy who lacked the professionalism to reach the top level. His subsequent inconsistency on the field enforced what came to be a widely-held belief that he was destined to fall below the level he threatened to reach shortly after bursting onto the scene.
Within the space of a few short months Grealish plummeted from nailed-on future England international to underwhelming prima donna. The unforgiving space that is the media tore a genuine talent to shreds in the blinking of an eye. If only he had spent more time training and less time in the mirror perfecting his slicked hairstyle, so the theory went.
While it’s absolutely paramount to acknowledge that Raheem Sterling’s media reputation has been shaped by an agenda which is riddled with despicable racist undertones, there are similarities to be drawn in the way both players have overcome a media agenda to become stars for their respective clubs.
Like Grealish, Sterling was once a teenager who was forced to embrace footballing stardom and all the extravagance which naturally arrives with it. And, like Grealish, he ended up entrenched in controversy after pictures emerged detailing his own set of controversial off-the-field actions.
Almost four years later, Sterling is now an integral player within a side who have genuine ambitions of clinching an unprecedented quadruple. His return of 18 goals in all-competitions this season is indicative of his importance to the club, but his rise to the top has been shaped by a propaganda war against a false identity which has been created to undermine him on both a footballing and personal level. At long, long last, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The narrative against Manchester City’s talisman culminated when Chelsea fans could be seen hurling racist abuse in his direction in December; finally the media opened their eyes to the culture of hatred they were culpable for generating.
Attitudes towards Sterling are rapidly changing – perhaps out of pure shame from the agenda which preceded his new-found sense of widespread popularity – and a similar transformation could beckon for Grealish.
A freak kidney injury did not derail his career; instead, it galvanised him and the playmaker returned a notably more bulky talent, with relentless hours in the gym clearly invested to prepare him for the physicality of the English game.
Make no mistake about it, Sterling has overcome more than most to reach the dizzy heights he has propelled himself to at the Etihad Stadium, but similar off-the-field mistakes early on in the formative stages of Grealish’s career handed him a separate and less sinister battle to fight away from the field.
The encounter at St Andrews was emblematic of a larger theme at play in Grealish’s career: he has matured and developed into a more professional athlete than the one who wilted shortly after the seeds of his reputation were planted in 2015 – the same seeds which have made him one of the most ridiculed and at times hated players in the Championship.
Through flying punches, whether physical or metaphorical, Grealish has the exemplary strength of character to overcome the hurdles in-front of him.
His match-winning performance at Birmingham attested to that.