"I knew for a fact if I lost that game I would not wear a Villa shirt again. I knew for a fact I would have been gone."
Jack Grealish, speaking to Sky Sports as he reviewed the year that was, was referring to the Championship play-off final victory in May, where victory brought Aston Villa back to the Premier League after a three-year absence.
While relieved the outcome resulted in the 24-year-old staying put, the situation is unlikely to be different this summer if they can't stave off relegation.
"Relegation? It won't happen," Grealish boldly predicted, and he's doing everything he can to keep his word, carrying Villa single-handedly through games and seeing his stock rise in the process.
Away from the Premier League, Villa stand a good chance of making another Wembley final - they are 1-1 with Leicester going into their Carabao Cup semi-final second leg at Villa Park, live on Sky Sports Football on Tuesday evening. It gives Grealish the chance to show the masses the unique style that has made him Villa's most valuable player, and by some distance.
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Are Villa a one-man team?
"This is the most one-man team that I've seen in a long time," said former Villa midfielder Paul Merson on Soccer Special ahead of the win over Watford. "He's absolutely outstanding. Can he keep carrying them? If l was a manager for another club who was playing villa, l would man-mark him."
Merson is not wrong. Since John McGinn's ankle injury before Christmas, Grealish has been everything to Villa. In the games Villa have earned a point or more, he's played a critical role.
Against Norwich on Boxing Day, Grealish drew defenders before feeding Conor Hourihane for the only goal. He was MOTM.
Against Burnley on New Year's Day, he struck a superb second as Villa won 2-1. Again, he was MOTM.
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Against Brighton on January 18, his fine left-footed half-volley earned Villa a 1-1 draw from nowhere, contributing with another MOTM show.
In the 2-1 win over Watford last week he helped set up the equaliser. And guess what? He was MOTM.
Without those moments alone, Villa would be joint-bottom with Norwich, and five points from safety. As it stands they are hovering two points above water.
So, are Villa a one-man team? In the context of this relegation battle, it's difficult to argue otherwise. The chances he has created account for 24 per cent of Villa's total chances, the second-highest in the Premier League behind Norwich.
Chances created: Each clubs' top player
|Player||Team||Chances created||% of total team chances|
|Jack Grealish||Aston Villa||50||24.1|
|Kevin De Bruyne||Man City||63||18.5|
|Wilfried Zaha||Crystal Palace||23||17.5|
Targett the wingman
Wesley's injury on New Year's Day has increased the need for Grealish to step up - and he has, emphatically - and the hope is new striker Mbwana Samatta will spread the load across the front three.
But Dean Smith's change of system on New Year's Day also should not pass without mention, going to five at the back for the win over Burnley, and sticking with it since.
It brought a humbling 6-1 defeat by Manchester City, but also good draws at Leicester and Brighton, and the victories over Burnley and Watford.
The system allows Villa's left-back to be Grealish's wing-man in attack, and quite simply, Matt Targett has been more effective at the role than Neil Taylor. So often Grealish is double marked, allowing Targett acres on the overlap.
In Samatta, they may now finally have a striker to raid the penalty area, and Villa's one-man team tag may be rubbed out before too long.
Passes between Grealish and left-back in five-man defence
|Opponent||Grealish and...||No of passes|
|Burnley (W 2-1)||Neil Taylor||13|
|Man City (L 6-1)||Neil Taylor||4|
|Leicester (D 1-1)||Neil Taylor||9|
|Brighton (D 1-1)||Matt Targett||17 (Team high partnership)|
|Watford (W 2-1)||Matt Targett||20 (Team high partnership)|
|(Excluding passes between two defender)|
Less is more
Grealish may be carrying Villa in a metaphorical sense, but his increased impact has actually come as a result of less running.
In all but two of Villa's first 10 league games, Grealish was the top runner. Since returning from injury in November, he has been Villa's top runner only twice in 12 games.
Conserving energy? It seems so: his sprints per game have gone up drastically from 7.6 to 10.8 per game.
In those 12 games since injury, where McGinn, Marvelous Nakamba and Douglas Luiz burned most of the midfield petrol, he has been Sky Sports' man of the match six times, having picked up the award just once beforehand.
Grealish's last seven games
|Date||Opponent||Sky Sports rating|
|Dec 26||Norwich (W 2-1)||9/10 MOTM|
|Dec 28||Watford (L 0-3)||6/10|
|Jan 1||Burnley (W 2-1)||8/10 MOTM|
|Jan 8||Leicester (D 1-1)||7/10|
|Jan 12||Man City (L 1-6)||5/10|
|Jan 18||Brighton (D 1-1)||8/10 MOTM|
|Jan 21||Watford (W 2-1)||7/10 MOTM|
He often does too much - he will admit the same - but that is the by-product of being the talisman, not something to be discouraged. Villa would rather he tries five things and pulls one of them off, often yielding points, than try nothing. His team-mates have been guilty of just that, such has been their lack of confidence.
Most PL MOTM awards this season
|Kevin De Bruyne||6|
While Villa fans are running out of superlatives for Grealish, Gareth Southgate is running out of excuses not to use him. Last season it was his Championship status, while this season, and perhaps more understandably, it was the form of others who can play in his position.
Picking Grealish for the March friendlies against Italy and Denmark seems inevitable, but there is a caveat. Where does Southgate see Grealish fitting in?
If he plays as part of a three-man midfield, the fear is that his impact will be suppressed, as seen when Mason Mount made his first start against Czech Republic last October.
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And if Grealish wants a place flanking the striker a front three, his preferred position, he is competing with Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi. They will be difficult to budge, and Southgate will be wary of using Grealish the right way.
"Fingers crossed I get an England call-up, that's the main thing..." Grealish said in December.
But for now, he's Villa's main man.
Watch Aston Villa vs Leicester on Tuesday January 28 from 7pm on Sky Sports Football; Kick-off 7.45pm