Will Grigg fired by Wembley ambition before Sunderland face Portsmouth | Football
Will Grigg appreciates the potential conflict of interests. He fully understands the tension between short- and longer-term ambitions. Yet there is nothing remotely bittersweet about his anticipation of a first Wembley appearance. “It’s no secret that promotion’s our aim, but football’s about giving fans great days and memories of being at big games,” says Sunderland’s Northern Ireland striker as he prepares for Sunday’s Checkatrade Trophy final against Portsmouth.
“I understand there are circumstances where people have to sacrifice cups for the league, but these finals are the things you remember throughout your career, and your life. We’ve got 40,000 fans going to Wembley. Different generations of the same families will all be walking down Wembley Way together and we want it to be one of those landmark days. We want to make memories.”
When Grigg dropped down a division from Wigan to become League One’s record £4m signing in January his intense concentration on helping Jack Ross’s side escape the third tier dictated that the Checkatrade Trophy initially felt like an unwanted distraction. Things have changed. “This game’s our focus now,” says the open and articulate 27-year-old whose side could also meet Portsmouth in the play-offs but, with games in hand, harbour automatic promotion hopes. “League matches come thick and fast through April but we can’t think down the line. I haven’t been to Wembley before and I don’t think many of the boys have either, so Sunday’s a massive occasion.”
Sunderland fans hope it concludes with some familiar lyrics blasting out of the sound system. Whatever else he achieves – and he has already celebrated four promotions from League One – Grigg’s career will for ever be synonymous with the infuriatingly catchy Will Grigg’s on Fire. The charity hit celebrating his 28 goals for Wigan in 2015-16 is an adaptation of Gala’s dance classic Freed from Desire and reached No 7 in the iTunes UK Top 100. The parody brainchild of Wigan fan Sean Kennedy, it was released by Blonde and adopted by Northern Ireland when Grigg’s international teammates recorded their own version before Euro 2016. Although its hero failed to actually make it on to the pitch in France, the song somehow became the tournament’s defining anthem.
If Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s manager, ultimately became irritated by the constant questions regarding his fourth‑choice striker’s flammability, proceeds from sales made thousands of pounds for Joseph’s Goal, a charity raising awareness and funding research into the genetic disorder, nonketotic hyperglycinemia.
Grigg is rightly proud of that but his new neighbours are in no danger of hearing “He will score goals, Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified” booming through the walls. “I tend to leave the radio off now, just in case it comes on,” he says drily. “My musical taste’s quite boring. I like Ed Sheeran and acoustic, quite chilled-out stuff, nothing too ravey or dancey.
“When the song came out it was pretty crazy, really strange, surreal but thoroughly enjoyable too and it raised money for a great cause. That’s all that matters. But if it comes on in the stadium you always get a little bit of stick, you see the lads looking at you …”
Privately educated at a rugby‑playing school in Solihull, Grigg joined Birmingham’s academy but was released at 16 after breaking a leg. “There was a short spell where I just fell out of love with football,” he says. “I was at Birmingham from seven and it became a bit routine. Getting released was the worst time of my life but it gave me that bit of fire in my belly to prove people wrong.”
Non-League Solihull Moors and Stratford Town beckoned, followed by Walsall, Brentford and MK Dons (on loan) before Wigan finally paid around £1m. Sunderland paid quadruple that figure but, despite scoring three goals in 10 appearances, Grigg’s contribution has been restricted by a nagging ankle injury. “It happened late January playing for Wigan,” he says. “It’s a ligament, it’s painful but it doesn’t hamper me too much.”
Otherwise he relishes life at a club that only two years ago belonged to the Premier League. “I always knew it was big but once you see the training ground and meet the fans you realise how massive Sunderland really is,” he says. “Playing here’s something really special. The facilities are top-drawer and the expectation in the city’s huge. At some clubs you can play on Saturday and then step away from it but here it’s so in your face. It’s great. This club got into a really bad place but we’re somewhere very different now. I was sold on the ambition, the vision for the future. That’s why I came.”
Ross’s “new school” approach proved another persuasive factor. “He’s definitely the modern style of coach,” enthuses Grigg. “I’ve played for quite a few managers – but not any like him. He’s different in lots of ways but the main one is his man management, the feel he’s got for people all around the club. It’s absolutely brilliant, he’s very approachable. Some managers like to keep their distance but you can really talk to him. It really helps.”
If Ross’s club are recovering from a turbulent few years, Portsmouth have endured worse trauma since the pair’s last Premier League meeting in 2010. “If the EFL could have picked the final it would have been this one,” says Grigg. “It’s between two teams with massive histories, and it’s a stepping stone on the way to getting Sunderland back where we want to be.”