Jack Grealish produced an excellent second-half performance for Manchester City as they beat Leeds United 3-1 at Elland Road.
Before either of them arrived at the Etihad, Kalvin Phillips was asked to be Jack Grealish’s messenger. “I get absolutely caned by Leeds fans 24/7,” the then-Aston Villa playmaker told Phillips during Euro 2020, in a plea to get his England teammate to call off the dogs.
There was the simmering tension of a minor rivalry between Aston Villa and Leeds United at the time, dating back to a controversial Championship clash a couple of years previously and some shared history trying to escape the second tier, but it was enough for Grealish to have fallen into the crosshairs of the Elland Road regulars.
He was the darling of the English public at that time but a £100million move to the champions soon put an end to that status. Now, it wasn’t only Leeds and the blue side of Birmingham where he was on the receiving end of the boo boys.
But whatever Phillips might have said before his own move from Elland Road to the Etihad, it clearly didn’t work. Back in the starting line-up for City and back in West Yorkshire, he was jeered throughout, particularly from the moment he was harshly denied a free-kick after being poleaxed by Pascal Struijk.
Phillips, on the other hand, was welcomed back like a returning hero. Pep Guardiola outed him as “overweight” in the days leading up to this game but he was back on the bench and mercilessly teased when he came out to warm-up 10 minutes into the second half. It was all good-natured though, with Phillips laughing as the Leeds fans taunted him with “you fat b*****d” and “you’re too fat to play to Leeds”. Those chants soon gave way to a rendition of the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ song that the home fans use to salute him with.
By now, their focus had drifted away from Grealish. When he spooned two excellent chances well over the bar in the first half he was mocked, but he exacted revenge after the break.
He was arguably a little fortunate to stay on after a particularly poor first 45 minutes, of which the two missed chances were the lowlight. But he wasn’t alone in that regard, with Erling Haaland missing two good chances. City deserved a goal for their dominance and when Rodri got it two minutes into first-half injury time it felt like it would change the complexion of the contest.
It looked to liberate City after the break. Leeds had been dogged out of possession but when Liam Cooper and Robin Koch got their wires crossed it was Grealish who pounced and raced clear, teeing up Haaland to score. He repeated the trick 13 minutes later, a pullback finding the Norwegian to score his second.
Grealish was still on the receiving end of some rough treatment from the Leeds players. After one foul from Wilfried Gnonto Grealish confronted the teenager.
Maybe sensing tensions were close to spilling over, Guardiola took him off a couple of minutes later. Grealish, on the far side of the pitch, clapped all four corners of Elland Road as he trudged off before being enveloped in a bear hug from his manager.
Leeds fans haven’t changed their mind about him, and neither has Guardiola. After a shaky opening 45 minutes, this turned into a night to remember for Grealish.