Over the last months I've reflected on the trade-off Jack Grealish has made by declaring to play international football for England. In short, I think he has weighed up the costs and benefits of a likely briefer, more lucrative career with England, that has the potential to offer more international success, against a longer but less financially beneficial career with Ireland. Sticking with the Boys in Green could have made him a cult hero, albeit for a nation which will likely be less successful in international competitions.
Although Grealish could not be called up to England's squad for the upcoming friendlies, (as he has to wait until the new year to be granted FIFA clearance) it struck me as interesting that Tottenham's Eric Dier, a player quite close to Grealish in age, made the squad for the first time. I asked myself , what age do English midfielders usually begin their senior international career?
Below is a table that shows members of the current England squad and recent call-ups who were capped. They are ordered by their age (excluding Eric Dier who is yet to be capped at a senior level) . The table also shows the age of each player when they made their senior international debut for England.
Some English players are capped at a later age and go on to achieve a high number of caps. James Milner started at twenty-three and now has over fifty caps, and Jordan Henderson began his international career at approximately the same time Grealish might. The Liverpool midfielder currently has twenty-two caps. These instances are rarer however and, expectedly, players that begin their international career later in life generally collect fewer caps.
Jack Grealish will have to develop significantly to compete with the current crop of English talent. He will probably have to leave Aston Villa - a clear trend is apparent in the clubs the players above are contracted to. A fair amount of Grealish's competitors are younger and have more senior international experience than him already. What's more, the table above just looks at midfield players, many forwards players such as Theo Walcott can play multiple roles (debuted at seventeen years and two months as England's youngest ever senior international). Neither does the table consider players outside of recent squads that could potentially be recalled (Ashley Young, debuted at twenty-two years and four months) or the next wave of English talent. It probably won't be long before the next batch of young lions such as Jordan Ibe (Liverpool - nineteen years old), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea - nineteen years old) and Josh Onomah (Tottenham - eighteen years old) catch Roy Hodgson's eye.
But what about English midfielders in general rather than the current crop of elites? The second table shows a list of English midfield players who have reached twenty-five senior international appearances or more. The list is ordered by the date of their debut*. The time period is from 1949 to 2010 and some very famous names appear in the list.
The average starting age for English midfielders who collect twenty-five caps or more in their career is twenty-one and a half. This statistic is favourable for Grealish. You may be thinking that the game has however evolved significantly since 1949. What may worry Jack more is that the average starting age of English midfield players has fallen over time; the average starting age of twenty-five plus cap midfielders since 2000 has been just twenty.
So to answer the question, how many caps will Jack Grealish get for England? My bet is that he is up against it to breach the twenty-five cap threshold. If he is going to get over twenty-five caps, he needs to begin his English career very soon, develop quickly, avoid serious injuries and be included in most squads. In sum, its later than he thinks.
My advice would be that Jack Grealish should look toward somebody like Jon Walters (thirty two years, thirty-seven caps) for inspiration on his international career choices. Maybe it's not too late. Of course, that's just my opinion. Jack may well put more weight on one English cap than one hundred for Ireland. The value one puts on their nationality is, after all, private. Money may not come into the equation - just ask James McLean!
*One observation was omitted as there was ambiguity with the data for Billy Wedlock.