A year ago Jack Grealish’s international prospects with England looked slim as Gareth Southgate continued to overlook him.
Yet two of the nation’s best talent spotters identified Grealish,25, as a potential huge future star nearly a decade ago.
Bryan Jones ran Aston Villa’s academy in three spells at the club dating back to the 1970s until retiring in 2014.
While John McDermott, now the FA’s technical director, was head of academy coaching at Spurs.
Jones can vividly recall a 16-year-old Grealish destroying Spurs in an U18 academy match which left both experienced football coaches gob-smacked.
Jones told Mirror Sport: “Jack played years ahead of his age group before he hit the first team.
“He was an outstanding individual.
“He used to go past people and had this ability.
“I remember him for the U18s when he was an U16.
“I was standing next to Tottenham’s then head of academy John McDermott.
“We actually beat Spurs 5-0 on the day and I remember John said: ‘Jesus, where did you find him, the boy on the left, Grealish’?
“I said: ‘he is just a local boy who has been with us since 9-10 years of age’.
“We were standing on the right hand touchline and Jack was playing wide left because he was two years younger than most kids.
“We played him out wide to protect him a little bit and he ghosted past people.
“John said to me: ‘how did he do that?’ After he cut in from the byline and whipped it back for goal No.3.
“I said: ‘I have absolutely no idea’.
“John had been in the game for years but recognised Jack was streets ahead of everyone.
“He could do things other kids just couldn’t do.
“It became just a case of channeling him in the right direction which is where our coaches Kevin McDonald and Tony McAndrew played such a big part.
“He then got stronger , quicker and worked hard on his muscular development over the last two-three years.
“Jack plays the game with a grin on his face which I love and is a character.
“Paul Gascoigne was the best youth player I have ever seen but Jack is close.”
Now Grealish is expected to follow in Euro 96 hero Gazza’s footsteps by playing for England on home soil in Euro 2020.
Despite his prodigious talent and rise to Villa captaincy, Three Lions boss Southgate was slow to pick the ace who only won the first of his seven caps last September.
But after putting off the field indiscretions behind him, including a fine and ban for crashing his car in lockdown last March, the decision of ex-Ireland U21 star Grealish’s to hold out for England has been vindicated.
Jones added: “He did a couple of things I think he regrets but since then he has matured, is now the Villa captain and that responsibility has done him the world of good.
“I remember we had countless meetings with him and his father.
“They were deliberating over whether to continue playing for the Republic of Ireland because he played for their U17s-U21s.
“It kept coming to crunch time and they would ask what do you think we should do?
“Even though I was close to the former Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, who was Ireland boss, he had left then and I didn’t feel guilty recommending England.
“Fortunately he came to that decision.
“We wondered a couple of years ago whether it was going to turn out the right way but fortunately it has.
“It gives me great pleasure to see him now.
“It is pride for him and his family who are delightful and have always been very supportive.”