Ireland rejoices in escaping 'chains' of Hughes tenure
Stephen Ireland is glad to be free of the shackles imposed by Mark Hughes.
Most pundits have felt Ireland's form has dipped dramatically this season, even though Manchester City are pushing for a top-four spot.
Ireland has a pretty simple explanation. Under Hughes this season he was never picked in his preferred advanced midfield position.
The arrival of Carlos Tevez has filled the space Ireland used to run into, so the Cork-born player was ushered onto both wings, and even deployed as a holding midfielder in competition with Nigel de Jong.
Ireland did his best. But given his lack of enjoyment, it is little wonder his performances were not what he wanted.
"The last six months under Mark Hughes was very frustrating for me," he said. "I was being played out of position. Maybe as a holding midfielder, left wing, right wing. It is not me.
"You have to adjust and think 'I have to do it' but if you want the best out of me you have to play me in my best position.
"Then I can be myself because the chains are off."
It could be argued few sides can carry such players in the Premier League and the presence of now-departed Robinho, whose attitude to tracking back was relaxed at best, made a tricky situation worse.
But Ireland's previous displays are believed to have caught the eye of Alex Ferguson given the number of times a potential move to Old Trafford for the 23-year-old has been mentioned.
For now though, the midfielder remains loyal to City, a club he feels welded into despite his roots on the other side of the Irish Sea.
"I have really worked hard over the last two years to build up my relationship with the fans," he said. "Even when I was doing a signing session a few months ago I ended up staying for over three hours.
"It comes naturally to me. Even though I came over from Ireland, the fans still regard me as one of them. I am very grateful for that."
Having missed out on a place in the Carling Cup final, City are anxious to make amends in the FA Cup this term.
Stoke visit Eastlands tomorrow and stand in the way of a quarter-final berth for Roberto Mancini's team, which is slowly being moulded into the Italian's image.
"It is difficult for anyone to come into a club, turn it round and get it going their way," said Ireland. "The manager is doing different things but he has done a really positive job so far.
"We are still scoring goals but we have not conceded as many and are working hard.
"I would never say it was going to be easy because you don't tend to win matches like that these days. But we will stick to our game plan and try and control the game the best way we can."
Joleon Lescott could be handed his first start for two months after coming on as a substitute in the midweek win over Bolton.
However, Craig Bellamy is not expected to be back from a knee injury before the rematch at the Britannia Stadium next Tuesday in the Premier League.