Late Calls and Tensions Behind The Scenes: Inside Jack Grealish’s Record-Breaking move

This content was originally written by Gregg EvansDavid Ornstein, and Sam Lee for The Athletic.

Monday morning and Jack Grealish laced up his boots, put on Aston Villa’s new training kit and headed out onto the grass at their pre-season camp in west London. It wasn’t what he had expected to be doing four days on from Manchester City making a Premier League record £100 million bid for him but things were dragging on and he was determined to act professionally for the sake of his reputation, the club he loves, the fans he adored and his family, who live in Birmingham and support Aston Villa.

However, he had gone out to that session on an agreement from Villa chief executive Christian Purslow — an agreement that his boyhood team would finally accept the bid that day and allow him to go to play for Pep Guardiola’s champions. It had been a tense few days.

And then the end of Monday came and the bid was still not accepted.

Tensions rose as Villa had conversations about whether it was possible to do a deal with Manchester United or Real Madrid instead but then Grealish’s camp made something very clear: he was only interested in playing for Manchester City and Villa had to accept the bid because there was a release clause in his contract saying so. Pressure was applied. Nobody wanted this to end with lawyers. And so finally, on Tuesday evening, after delaying as much as he could, Purslow accepted the bid. Grealish finally was allowed to say goodbye to his team-mates and leave the London camp on Wednesday afternoon. The paperwork was completed in the early hours of Thursday.

The deal was intense and complicated from start to finish and here at the talking points:

  • Grealish’s release clause of £100 million was added last summer and was set to expire today, August 7
  • City did not know about the clause, which allowed Villa to stall
  • The negotiations were led by City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Villa co-owner Nassef Sawiris
  • Villa delayed as long as possible so they could sign players
  • There was dialogue with Real Madrid and Manchester United as Villa preferred not to do business with City
  • Grealish is signing a six-year deal worth £300,000 per week plus bonuses and has the opportunity to earn significantly more
  • The goodbye speech in the Villa dressing room on Wednesday
  • How City kept the fact he’ll wear their No 10 shirt a secret from him.

That release clause, inserted into Grealish’s contract when he signed a new five-year deal last September, lies at the heart of much of the tension and delaying over the past few days. Grealish’s agents Stellar had previous in getting a big client out of a club when Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013 and knew the clause would be key to any deal, whether that be abroad, to Manchester United (who had been interested previously) or City, the clear front-runners.

It is in many ways the opposite of what is going on currently with Harry Kane and his own attempts to leave Spurs this summer. That clause, however, was confidential — a legal issue that isn’t the case in mainland Europe but is in the UK — meaning City didn’t know about it and Villa could stall in the hope of getting more money from them or just to gain time to sign some players themselves. The rushed announcement of Danny Ings’ move from Southampton on Wednesday night, unusually without a picture of the player or quotes from him, is a case in point. Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey had also joined earlier the same day.

Conversations had been taking place between Al Mubarak and Sawiris owing to the good relationship the pair have. When the City bid did arrive on Thursday of last week, it was for £100 million — a British record transfer fee and enough to trigger the clause at Villa’s end. Crucially the bid also came before Saturday August 7, the date on which the clause was to expire. Purslow became a key figure in what followed and the tensions that arose. He, of course, had to put his club first and wanted to see if more money could be extracted from City if negotiations dragged on. Although he acknowledged the bid on the Friday, there was nothing more formal, which did not please the player or City.

Finally, despite indicating Villa would accept the bid, nothing more came again on the Saturday, a move which perplexed Grealish and his camp as they knew it matched his release clause.

City were determined to hold firm and discussions between the player’s side and with Purslow continued, with repeated reassurances that the deal would be ratified. At one point there were tentative conversations about whether Real Madrid, who are in no position financially to do the deal, could offer some sort of player swap instead. Manchester United were called too and swap deals were also mentioned. United admired Grealish and would have considered a move next year but the player only wanted to go to City and Old Trafford was never going to be a realistic resolution. Why the desperation to not sell to City? Many Premier League clubs are concerned their success and financial clout are damaging the competition. Villa are not alone in this.

It was after Grealish trained on Monday following the agreement that the bid would be accepted that frictions emerged and Purslow was reminded by the player’s camp about the clause. The last thing they wanted was legal action — Grealish genuinely loves Villa and wanted to leave as much as possible on good terms with the fans, especially as his family live in the Birmingham area. A version of the Kane stand-off situation at Tottenham did not appeal. There was certainly no talk of refusing to train and Villa insiders told The Athletic that Grealish’s behaviour was impeccable all week.

Finally, with Bailey signed, Ings on the way and the inevitability of having to let Grealish go, Villa signed the agreement on Tuesday evening. Grealish was eventually released to head for Manchester on Wednesday but two things happened before that. Firstly, he was asked to go out and watch an 11 v 11 training game while Villa finalised the Ings deal. And Secondly, he decided to make a speech to the squad in the changing room after that match. Nobody was allowed to film it or tell anyone it had happened. The players apparently applauded him at the end and he became emotional.

The medical had been planned for 8am Thursday for a while, with the announcement due later that day. Finally, the saga came to an end. Villa had their money (which will be paid in instalments over three years, which suits City in terms of spreading their spend) and had delayed enough to sign some players. City had their target.

But will Grealish turn out to be worth the £100M fee for which has been paid for him? We’ll have to wait and see.

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