We are discussing the most famous calves in English football, those supersized specimens that emerge from a pair of rolled-down socks.

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A throwback looks for a very 21st-century footballer, the Manchester City and England forward with an Alice band in his hair, the No 10 on his shirt and that £100million price tag on his shoulders.

Jack Grealish will return to his transfer and its accompanying challenges later, but first things first: those calves. ‘I actually don’t do anything,’ he says. ‘It’s just something that runs in the family. My grandad always had big calves when he used to play football.

‘But I don’t do any calf exercises or calf routines in the gym or anything. Honestly, it’s just something that I’ve had since I was young.’

And the socks, which call to mind some 1970s maverick almost as much as his dribbling skills and a wide grin?

‘I think I was about 14 or 15 and we were sponsored by Macron at Aston Villa, and the socks used to shrink in the wash. In training, obviously, I couldn’t get them over my calves because the socks were so small. So I started wearing them below my calves in training — and that season I ended up playing really well.

‘So then I started wearing my socks below my calves in games as well. It was just something that stuck because I’d had such a good season.’

Footballers can be superstitious creatures, finding assurance in little habits amid the pressure of professional sport. Something, you suspect, that Grealish will have appreciated more than ever this season, following the upheaval of leaving his boyhood club, Aston Villa, for Pep Guardiola’s champions and becoming the most expensive English footballer ever.

There were tears when he said goodbye at Villa and the 26-year-old’s reflections hint at a mix of emotions.

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‘It was a massive decision,’ says Grealish, a boyhood season-ticket holder who grew up in Villa’s academy and spent seven years in the first team. ‘I’d been at Villa my whole life, since I was six — growing up, playing for my boyhood club and captaining them.

‘To leave was a difficult decision, I’ve said it plenty of times, but it was something I felt was right at the time. I think it was the perfect time for me to move on, try something new and step out of my comfort zone.

‘When I came here it was different because at Villa, and also when I go away with the national team, you have the same culture, you have the same nationality; most of the lads are English. And here there are only, what, four or five of us who are English.’

He marvels at the linguistic acrobatics of his Brazilian teammates Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. ‘Gabi and Dinho, I’m sure they can speak three or four languages each, so it’s unbelievable. It’s something I’d absolutely love to do but I don’t think I’ve got the patience for it.’

Maybe, but he has needed patience when it comes to the football lessons he is learning under Guardiola.

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A player accustomed to having the licence to roam from his left flank under Dean Smith at Aston Villa has had to adjust to less freedom now he is no longer the main man. He has become a cog in a meticulously managed machine. ‘I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I’d love to have scored more and assisted more, but I feel like I’ve been playing well, even when I haven’t been scoring or assisting.’

Grealish has only words of praise for Guardiola. ‘He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s just an addict to football. As soon as he steps foot in the building, everything’s just about football, everything’s just for the next game. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s a brilliant manager who helps the team so much. I’ve said at times this season that he’s won games by himself, with the way he’s set us up and the tactics he’s given us, and we’ve gone out there and done the job.’

As well as footballing lessons, Grealish is still gaining knowledge elsewhere — not least about how to handle football’s steep emotional swings. He confesses that this has been a challenge for him, first as the boy wonder and later captain at Villa, now as the £100m man at City.

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He is still learning ‘just to cope with the good times and cope with the bad times. I think in football, it’s such a rollercoaster ride, you know — you’re up and you’re down. If you don’t get the result that you want, you come home and you’re devastated.’

Grealish goes on to cite the advice given to him by one of his former academy coaches at Villa, Steve Burns. ‘He always used to say, “Pressure is a privilege”.

‘There’s such a mental side to football, where you need to be in the right mindset. Pressure is a big thing in football, especially for me coming here for that price tag, and being English. I think the media try and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders.’

The ‘being English’ bit is worth dwelling on. The spotlight burned on Grealish last summer when he emerged as a Wembley crowd favourite during England’s run to the Euro 2020 final.

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He says: ‘Have you heard the quote that you don’t realise how big or how good something is until it’s gone? That’s the case with me. Now I look back, it was unbelievable. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

‘England were so good to us, they did everything to make us feel at home at our hotel and at our camp. I absolutely loved it. It was a shame that we couldn’t get over the last hurdle in the final and losing on penalties is the worst way to lose.

‘There are a few regrets, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to play at a major tournament for my country. I think it was a time that brought the whole country together.’

Grealish will be hoping to lace up his boots for England again at the World Cup later this year, but first comes the quest for honours with City — and savouring his first season of Champions League football. Last season’s runners-up are trying to go one step further. The hope now is for an even more spectacular conclusion.

‘Most of the lads here have won everything, numerous times as well, so I think that’s the one that everyone wants this year,’ says a man still seeking his first senior honours.

‘It’s brilliant if we can go and win every competition that we’re in, but that being one that we haven’t won yet, that’s what we have our eyes on.’


Courtesy: Daily Mail

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