Every decade or so, a gifted English footballer is anointed as "the future of English football" – a label that often amounts to a gold-plated, diamond-studded ball and chain. The weight of the English dream prevents such players from fulfilling their own potential, let alone that of the chronically flawed national team. But Jack Grealish may just prove to be hype-proof.
For one thing, he is insanely good at the art of unlocking defences. No team on earth would sniff at the chance of signing the Aston Villa playmaker right now – Bayern Munich and the Spanish giants included. But he is also blessed with an uncomplicated understanding of what he does, and what he needs to do.
To use a South African term, Grealish jols on the pitch. He is genuinely excited by the simple fact of the ball at his feet, and unafraid of what might go wrong. And unlike Paul Gascoigne, another joyous playmaker he has recently been compared to, he appears to be well equipped for the psychological torture chamber that is English superstardom.
Grealish is not a saint, but he's in control of himself. When he broke the UK lockdown regulations in April, leaving his house to help a friend who had been involved in a car crash, he apologised with genuine contrition and moved on.
And unlike Joe Cole, a similarly mercurial ball wizard, Grealish is never peripheral. He genuinely bosses games, bringing a traditional English workaholism and mobility to his artistry. It's as though somebody transplanted the brain of Mezut Ozil into the body of James Milner.
It must have helped that Grealish's brilliance took longer than usual to become apparent beyond Birmingham. Last year was his breakthrough season, when he was 24 – a lot older than the typical world-class player.
And it was clear from Grealish's assured showing for England in midweek, in a 3-0 dismissal of the Republic of Ireland, that he is part of an England generation that will elevate him. With attacking comrades of the calibre of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford to combine with, Grealish's ideas will not be wasted.
Even the stubbornly cautious England manager Gareth Southgate may struggle to dim his new asset's brightness with a restrictive brief – because Grealish seems to take positional discipline with a pinch of salt. This season at Villa, he has been moved from his previous roaming No 10 role to the left wing, which has lightened his defensive workload a bit, but he still moves inside more than a conventional winger does. And the shift has made him more brutally effective than ever.
One thing is for sure: Grealish does not represent the past of English football. He brings a package of invention, steadiness and drive that marks a departure from creative precursors like Gascoigne and Cole. And against top-ranked Belgium on Sunday night, he might even outshine Kevin de Bruyne, widely thought of as the finest playmaker on this planet. And it wouldn't be a shock.
- Catch Grealish on Sunday when Belgium faces England (9.45pm on SuperSport3)