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comment What’s the point in being loyal to a club if ex-fans just boo you anyway?

I couldn’t believe how Grealish was treated by supporters on his return to Villa Park – he deserved so much better

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Jack Grealish salutes the travelling Manchester City fans at Villa Park on Wednesday. Photo: PA

Jack Grealish salutes the travelling Manchester City fans at Villa Park on Wednesday. Photo: PA

Michael Owen

Michael Owen

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Jack Grealish salutes the travelling Manchester City fans at Villa Park on Wednesday. Photo: PA

I used to think there was a right way to leave a football club. A means by which a much-loved player could exit through the front door, and still be welcomed back by his ex-fans on his return.

Until this week, if you had asked me for a modern example I would have cited Jack Grealish’s move from Aston Villa to Manchester City.

To me, the timing of Grealish’s transfer – and the manner in which he handled his departure – was as classy as it gets. The club hierarchy released a statement wishing him well, and when Grealish says he left Villa Park with a heavy heart, I believe him.

As an England international in his mid-20s looking to take the next step in his career, no one could begrudge him the chance to join the Premier League champions, learning from one of the best managers ever, and challenging himself in the Champions League.

What was his reward? To be booed by a large section of Villa supporters on his return in a City shirt. It was shocking and difficult to understand.

Since Grealish was a teenager, all the top four Premier League clubs have been scouting him and considering a bid.

For years, Grealish remained loyal to Villa, staying with them in the Championship when others would have jumped ship, and helping his boyhood team establish themselves in the Premier League.

By signing a deal with a clause of £100 million, Grealish took a calculated risk which was mutually beneficial to him and his club. He ensured when he was sold, Villa received an unbelievable fee to reinvest in the squad. And the only way he was ever going to motivate a club to pay so much for him was to consistently perform at the highest level.

It means that although Villa were unhappy to lose their best player, the compensation was massive.

Until Wednesday evening, my presumption was that Villa fans understood and respected that. Three days on, it is still hard to believe Grealish was treated as he was. There are sad consequences for that.

In the summer, I used this column to urge Harry Kane not to ruin his relationship with Tottenham Hotspur fans by pushing too hard for his move to Manchester City.

“You have to conduct yourself differently as a local player,” I wrote. “You are held to a higher standard.”

If the Grealish example is the new normal, I was wrong. Clearly it no longer matters how you leave a club if the supporters do not want you to go. You’re going to get hammered either way.

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My concern is that a generation of players are going to recognise that and act accordingly. The next youngster coming through the Villa academy who is good enough to play for a top-four club may think there is no benefit in being loyal.

They may think they will get slaughtered whether they leave aged 26 or 21, so if the right deal is on the table they might as well put in a transfer request sooner rather than later. If the consequences are the same no matter what choices they make, who can blame them?

Villa fans may feel they are being singled out, but the Grealish incident is the harshest in recent memory.

Ben Chilwell was booed on his return to Leicester City recently, but you could argue he was not at the King Power stadium long enough to forge a lasting relationship. If players are perceived to be using clubs as a stepping stone, they know there will be no love for them when they go to an old ground.

Inevitably, there are accusations that supporters at my former club, Liverpool, have a track record for jeering those they once adored. Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling were all booed by the Kop. Naturally, I consider each case different.

Torres and Sterling took stick because they joined direct rivals, Chelsea and Manchester City, so their transfers in 2011 and 2015 were highly contentious. Sterling gave an especially controversial interview saying he was interested in joining Arsenal on the eve of a critical game at the Emirates in the race for the top four.

Suarez was targeted because of his conduct for Barcelona in the first leg of the 2019 Champions League semi-final, and he was still not forgiven when he represented Atletico Madrid earlier this season.

In my opinion, Owen was wrongly abused by the crowd on his Liverpool return as a Newcastle player in 2005, the Kop was misguided to think he engineered his move to Real Madrid a year earlier so that the club received a minimal fee. It was more complicated than that. Either way, whether you agreed with how the crowd responded, there were reasons for it.

The common denominator in all these cases is that football supporters are only prepared to welcome back former players if they are considered to have left on the club’s terms.

When players force their sales against the general will of the club and fans – as Torres, Sterling and Suarez did – the damage is done.

There is a marked contrast when players who the supporters were happy to see go, or at least ambivalent when their time at a particular club comes to an end, make their return.

As a player, there were many times I shook my head in bemusement when certain others who were average at Anfield received a hero’s welcome.

How could Owen, who scored more than 100 goals for Liverpool, often single-handedly winning us games (including the 2001 FA Cup final) be treated as he was in a Newcastle shirt, while those who played in underperforming Liverpool teams be received as legends?

Every club will have its own stories of players they welcomed back with open arms, and others they felt warranted taunts. There is usually some kind of explanation. Whatever the justification, it is a struggle to think of any reaction as incomprehensible as that afforded Grealish.

“I was invited to the West Ham game in October,” Grealish said earlier this week. “But I wasn’t actually sure of the reception I was going to get so I didn’t go.”

Now he knows. For his sake, I hope time heals and it is different in future. If the only way a home-grown player can remain on good terms with those he represented is by devoting their entire career to the club, there are going to be far more fractured relationships in professional football than there used to be.


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