Houllier warns 'lazy' Ireland to prove his worth
ASTON VILLA 0
STEPHEN IRELAND'S future with Aston Villa appears to be bleak after manager Gerard Houllier launched a remarkable attack on the Irish exile yesterday.
The Corkman was dropped for Villa's derby clash with Birmingham and Houllier explained afterwards that he made the decision because the £8m August recruit from Manchester City doesn't work hard enough.
"Stephen played against Chelsea and did well. He played against Sunderland and was not good enough for me, simple as that," said Houllier, before elaborating on why a £60k-a-week player was dormant for one of the club's biggest games of the season, with an unknown 20-year-old being put on ahead of him.
"The skill is one thing, but you need to compete. It's a difficult period for him but we support him and back him. We know he is a good player but I don't want to have players who you say: 'He's a good player but...'
"If you say: 'He's a good player, but he doesn't defend, but he doesn't run back, but he loses too many balls in crucial areas', that's difficult. He needs to get rid of these 'buts' and be a good player."
Ireland has underwhelmed with Villa since becoming surplus to requirements at Eastlands. He has been involved in five Premier League games, with his new team drawing two and losing three of those games.
The midweek Carling Cup win over Burnley gave the talented playmaker his first taste of victory in a Villa shirt, but he was replaced just short of the hour mark in a tie that went to extra-time.
It was a better day for an English-born player who actually wants to represent Ireland.
Ciaran Clark, who was introduced to Houllier's starting XI in an unfamiliar holding role in front of the back four, was prominent throughout, and the woodwork denied the 21-year-old from scoring a late winner.
The highly rated London lad is a specialist centre-half, but Giovanni Trapattoni will note his versatility; particularly as the left side of defence is a problem area for Ireland.
On Friday, the Italian will name his squad for next month's friendly with Norway and Clark must be in the reckoning.
Certainly, Richard Dunne, who helped recruit Clark to the cause, is a fan.
"I like him as a lad, he's got an old head on young shoulders and it's only a matter of time before he becomes a regular in both teams," said the Dubliner over the weekend.
If the Carling Cup quarter-final between these teams is anything like as anti-climactic as this soulless draw, Houllier and Alex McLeish may as well meet for a glass of red wine and toss a coin.
The desire to avoid defeat proved greater than the lure of victory.
But, while McLeish can take solace from gaining his first point in this fixture at the fourth attempt as Birmingham ended a sequence of six successive derby defeats, Aston Villa's lack of ambition was disconcerting.
It is six weeks today since Houllier took charge at Villa Park and his record of one victory in five league games does not match that of Kevin MacDonald, who served as caretaker manager.
What's more, Villa have not scored a goal in 344 minutes of action in the Premier League.
Faced with a hard-working Birmingham side whose one concession to flair is to offer Alexander Hleb the freedom to roam in the hole off Nikola Zigic, Houllier asked Clark to play the holding role in front of his back four -- which he did in exemplary fashion. And the Frenchman also used Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell to shore up the midfield. So, at home to Birmingham, Villa set up in a 4-5-1 formation and invited the opposition on to them.
The closest Villa came to scoring in the opening period arrived when Reo-Coker chased down Liam Ridgewell's back-pass and Ben Foster's clearance rebounded off him, only for the ball to fly just wide.