Grealish, Smith… and Springsteen? Villa vs Man City is why we watch

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“It’s a club that is so close to my heart and I definitely hope to go back there. That’s always been in my mind. Ashley Young has done it and I want to do the same, 100 percent. … You only get one shot at your career and it just flies by,” Jack Grealish


“Stay on the streets of this town and they’ll be carving you up alright. They say you gotta stay hungry, hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight,” Bruce Springsteen.


I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, and I’d argue that the music of the man from New Jersey is oddly fitting to score the physical and possible (probable) playing return of Jack Grealish to Villa Park (watch live 3:15 pm ET on Peacock Premium).

It’s the humanity of Grealish, the faith of the Villa fans, the power of Man City, and the sociology of it all that makes Wednesday’s Aston Villa vs Man City match even more fascinating to me than the Merseyside derby occurring 45 minutes later about 100 miles northwest. Even if Grealish doesn’t play — he faces a late fitness test — he’ll still be in the building in a mentally-charged state.

What makes Springsteen’s songs — and his concerts! — so special is that they force you to run the emotional gamut in addition to the full-body exercise of singing along and, yes, even dancing awkwardly on the floor while the E Street Band drives you throw two-plus hours of rock and roll.

Springsteen’s lyrics do more than a few things that fit Grealish’s story so well:

  • Celebrate the ties that bind us, for better or worse, to home
  • Detail the desire to get the heck out of town
  • Wonder what else is out there and if we’re reaching our very best
  • Return home to give it another go

And those will all be on display in varying degrees Wednesday at Villa Park.

The dogs on Main Street howl ’cause they understand

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a spirit around Aston Villa of a dormant giant in a big city.

Birmingham’s story, in some ways, often made me think of my home city of Buffalo. Once the site of a World’s Fair, then a punch line, and now very much on the upswing again. In fact, whether Newcastle, Glasgow, and to some extent Hamburg and Dortmund, that overriding feeling of what the area’s biggest teams were versus what they are and could become led me to an emphatic empathy with the supporters’ hope and the clubs’ sense of duty to punch through the current ceiling.

With Celtic and Rangers, it’s when the Scottish giants hit the European scene with marvelous national chips on their shoulders. For Villa now, it’s rising back up through the stratosphere to the days of regular top-six finishes (and for sure, for so many, the 1980-81 top-flight title).

This, perhaps, is an integral component of what makes derby days so special, whether Celtic vs Rangers, Hamburg vs St. Pauli, or Villa vs Birmingham (and, Wednesday plug alert, Everton vs Liverpool at 3:15pm ET live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). We’re reminded that the challenges that exist beyond our local borders don’t change the need to scrap inside them.

Then there are more unique and emotion-stirring events like Grealish’s Wednesday return to VIlla Park — an odd sort of derby in itself — the local hero tied to town and club who eventually felt the pull of something bigger, if less weighty, tear them from home in search what might be elsewhere.

“Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got,”

Springsteen, “Badlands” (1978)

The key difference here, unlike Springsteen playing a huge show in New Jersey, is that most Villa fans won’t be relishing Grealish on the opposition. After all, as detailed above, Villa’s drive is the be amongst the Man Cities of the world, not a launching pad for its players.

And so the romance and soul-stirring here is more about Grealish himself, the teen phenom who stuck with the club through relegation and saw his name in the transfer rumor mill time and again before eventually making the call to leave, gutting as it was.

You’re walking tough, baby, but you’re walking blind to the ties that bind. You can’t break the ties that bind

In a sense, look to another boyhood Villa fan in Dean Smith, the manager who along with Grealish led Villa back to the Premier League.

Grealish left on his own terms.

Smith was not so lucky.

But, really, time in our prime is fleeting and needs to be respected. It always ends, regardless of what you’ve brought your club but for whatever reason we have an easily understanding when the boss or player is fired or dropped more than when they leave the test presumably deeper waters. I’m mildly connected to Smith’s son, and it was eye-opening in a positive way to see him on social media celebrating Villa’s win at Palace and Norwich’s draw versus Wolves in the same post. We go on.

That brings us back to Springsteen, and I think “The Boss” and his E-Street Band provide a unique perspective on the Inner workings of a talent like Jack Grealish. The collective had proven capable of true brilliance, but the jewel at its corps, the leader of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, could no longer resist the urge to see what he was about on his own. It wasn’t about Villa, like when Springsteen broke up the E Street Band but still played on some of their individual records (and, it should be noted, put the band back together and kicked the world’s ass for another 20+ years).

Oddly enough or maybe even ironically, Springsteen last played Villa Park in 1988, without the E Street Band. Grealish was negative-7 years old.

The eyes trained on Villa come kickoff will be in part more due to the new arrival and nascent success of manager Steven Gerrard, oddly enough a one-club man (in Europe) who played against Grealish and knows well the challenges of sticking with a club (Gerrard recently commented on his almost leaving the Reds for Chelsea when asked about Grealish’s move)

But the far more fascinating subplot is that of Grealish, returning from injury to the place that birthed his career. The 26-year-old was six when he started with Villa. He was 25 when City paid the most money ever for an English player to buy his services from the Birmingham set.

And if we know anything about Grealish on the field, we’ll be assured that one of the world’s most often fouled players is about to get the feathers beaten out of him by his former teammates.

But that won’t be anything compared to the battle going on in his head as a players who spent two decades seeing a building as his home and now comes back wearing a different color (well, really, just more of one of the two Villa hues, essentially).

It’ll be difficult to take our eyes off him, even with 21 other players and thousands of spectators surrounding him.

So let the games start, you better run you little wild heart
You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay
And before the end of the day I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away