If Tottenham had had their way 18 months ago then this would have been Jack Grealish’s emotional homecoming.
Grealish was close to a £25m move to a Champions League team and ready to take his career on to the next stage, and Spurs was his destination.
The silky playmaker had outgrown the Championship and had already led his boyhood club to a Championship play-off final, where they were narrowly beaten by Fulham.
Jack Grealish was inspirational despite Aston Villa’s last-gasp defeat by Tottenham
Grealish ran the show and gave Serge Aurier (right) a torrid time down the right for Spurs
One of English football’s brightest talents had grown away from the spotlight of the Premier League after Villa’s relegation in 2016, and now seemed the perfect time for him to go to the next level.
Financially-stricken Villa were cashing in, but on the eve of the 2018-19 season fresh ownership arrived in the form of Wes Edens and Naseef Sawiris. It suddenly swept doubt over the move.
The new bosses played hardball with Daniel Levy and, somewhat unsurprisingly, the Spurs chairman didn’t cough up the extra funds required.
Now, in 2020, Grealish is no up-and-coming talent, he’s close to the finished article and one of the form players in the Premier League. Manchester United are known admirers, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is reportedly eyeing up an ambitious double transfer swoop to pair Grealish and James Maddison together.
Jose Mourinho revealed his admiration before the game: ‘He is a very important player for them. Very important.
Grealish saw plenty of the ball as the home side dominated the early stages at Villa Park
‘Very talented, can score a goal, can make an assist, incredible connection with the fans.
‘So easy to feel immediately that he’s one of them. He’s capable of making the crowd chase the team.
‘A very important player for them for sure.’
No one has won as many fouls in Europe as Grealish this season and it took just three minutes on Sunday before he was brought down by Serge Aurier.
He ran rings around the Spurs full back, who endured a torrid opening half at Villa Park.
Twice inside the opening 10 minutes Grealish, stationed on the left-hand side for Villa, worked shooting situations as he cut in on his right foot.
Grealish celebrates with Mbanwa Samatta after Toby Alderweireld’s early own goal
Grealish provided a pinpoint corner for Bjorn Engels (right) to head Villa level in second half
Both times he shot wide, but after going near post for his first attempt he tried to go for the far post for his second, but saw his effort curl just wide.
Aurier could not get a hold of Grealish, and in the 18th minute he once again got away. Grealish then bamboozled his way past Toby Alderweireld, who was also having an afternoon to forget, and put it on a plate for Douglas Luiz with the outside of his boot.
Luiz blasted it at goal only for it to deflect off a stretched Ben Davies and over the bar.
In the 24th minute he again found space, but this time he fooled his marker and squared to Mbwana Samatta instead only for Eric Dier to make a last-ditch recovery and clear.
Perhaps he would have been better off shooting, but it is this unpredictability which makes Grealish such a wanted man.
But the first half swiveled as violently as Toby Alderweireld did to lash home a loose ball for an undeserved Spurs equaliser in the 27th minte.
As much as Villa had dominated they had just the Alderweireld own goal to show for their efforts, and barely got a sniff for the rest of the half.
Despite Grealish’s best efforts he could not prevent an agonising defeat for the home side
Inevitably, it was Grealish who got the hosts back into the game after Son Heung-min’s VAR-assisted penalty had put the visitors ahead on the stroke of half time. The 24-year-old’s pinpoint corner found the head of Bjorn Engels and the scores were level once more.
It was Grealish’s 13th goal involvement in the Premier League this season – his sixth assist – and five more than any other Villa player. Dean Smith’s side are already struggling to beat the drop and would be in really dire straits without their captain and lynchpin.
His goal involvement is also three better than any other English midfielder, and it is hard to imagine Gareth Southgate isn’t paying attention with international friendlies to come next month ahead of Euro 2020.
Old Trafford appears his likeliest destination this summer, and it isn’t hard to see why Solskjaer and United are such keen admirers. As impressive as the numbers are, he offers a reliability that United are sorely lacking.
Grealish was dejected after the final whistle as Villa’s survival hopes took a hit
He has missed just two of Villa’s 26 league games this season. Paul Pogba – the man he could be replacing in midfield – has made just seven, and only two since September due to injury.
Goals have been a huge problem for United, or more the lack of them, particularly from midfield. Eight midfielders – Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Fred, Scott McTominay and Dan James – have scored only 12 between them this season.
They need more than £68m January signing Bruno Fernandes, and with a higher-class of team-mate around him it is hard to see how Grealish fails to reach that next level.