Ireland: I came here under illusions
At Aston Villa's Bodymoor Heath complex, a group of young footballers are making their way to the training pitches. They look so fresh-faced at first glance, the only plausible assumption is that they are off to join a session with the academy.
But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that in among them is Darren Bent. It is not, after all, the U-15s about to be put through their paces. This is the Aston Villa first-team squad.
Seventeen years ago, Manchester United played at Villa Park with a side of such striking youth, Alan Hansen was moved to make his infamous observation about how little can be won with young players.
As the two sides prepare to meet this afternoon, it is Villa who are now in thrall to the next generation. With players such as Matthew Lowton, Joe Bennett, Christian Benteke and Ciaran Clark in their midst, the average age of the side who beat Sunderland last weekend was 24.
"I know, they aren't half getting younger," Stephen Ireland says of his team-mates. "I had this at Manchester City. Kevin Keegan left, Stuart Pearce took over and all of a sudden, me, Micah Richards, Joe Hart were given a chance."
And, he adds, those City youngsters were a bunch of kids who went on to win something.
"Well, they have," he says. "But I've gone on to have a good career."
The difference from that City experience is that this time Ireland finds himself at the other end of the age range. At 26 he was the oldest outfield player selected by Villa manager Paul Lambert at the Stadium of Light.
For a player whose antics -- from dropping his shorts in celebration of a City goal to a fondness for pink paintwork on his Range Rover -- previously suggested a juvenile disposition, this represents an unexpected role reversal. Suddenly Stephen Ireland is that most unlikely of things: the senior professional.
"Yeah, I find myself one of the experienced ones, which is a change," he smiles. "I've never been in that position before. I wouldn't look at them as competition. I like it when home-grown lads come through, especially if they deserve it, work hard to be where they are. That's a real good story."
Not that Ireland is entirely convinced we should be surprised at his conversion to elder statesman. Some time ago, embarrassed that when he googled his own name all that came up were tales of pink wheels, he decided to concentrate solely on his game. Yet, he suggests, it took a while for those in charge to recognise the change.
"I did come here under illusions," he says of his arrival in the English midlands in 2010. "Villa had been sixth for the three previous seasons, I thought we could kick on. But Martin O'Neill left just before I got here. Then Gerard Houllier arrived."
It is fair to say Ireland and the Frenchman did not form a bond.
"When you have good intentions and you really want to achieve certain things for yourself, it's very hard when someone gets in the way and stops you from doing it," he says. "I was sent on loan after a few months and it was all very stop-start for me. It's only now I'm pretty much getting a fair crack at things."
The impetus for fresh opportunity, he believes, has come from the dugout. Although he says he has nothing but respect for the previous manager Alex McLeish ("I like the guy"), he reckons the summer arrival of Lambert has changed the mindset around the club.
"We're being encouraged to play football, we're winning or losing in style," he says. "It's probably not good to lose, of course, but at least we're having a go. We're only a few minor details away from being a good side."
The main thing Lambert has done, Ireland says, is raise expectations, rejuvenating not only the starting XI, but the ambition of the entire playing staff.
"He's really hands on. He's honest, straight, up front. You've got to work hard to get in the team. Everyone's chasing those places, but he's kept everyone involved," says Ireland.
"The players have bought in, see a good future ahead of them. From the first day till now it's been brilliant. He's done a really good job."
What's more, unlike at least one of his predecessors, Ireland says the new boss judges players not on reputation but performance.
"Absolutely he gives you a chance," he says. "He'll take you aside, show you footage of what you've done, tell you what he wants. He's working with everybody."
As is Ireland. He believes that his new role as senior citizen brings its own responsibilities. "I want to give them advice, help them with their decision making," he says of the young players.
"That step up from youth to reserve to first team is massive. When I was trying to get into the first team at City, I'd been in the reserves since I was 16 or 17, playing with Richard Dunne, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, really experienced players. I picked up from them so I hope to help the young players coming in like I was helped."
One thing he might advise his youthful colleagues is how to spend their free time. These days Ireland occupies much of his by kicking, punching and wrestling: he is an expert at martial arts. "I feel it helps me as a player, puts fire in the belly."
He will need his scrapping skills over the next few weeks. After United visit Villa Park today, a fortnight later he will find himself back at City.
"Those are two games I'm looking forward to. United look good, very consistent. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are really getting that relationship going. They could be dangerous."
Though not sufficiently dangerous, he insists, to deny Villa the opportunity to demonstrate once again how Hansen got it wrong 16 seasons ago.
"Absolutely we can win something," he says. "I think we should be up in the top half. We just need a few things to go our way." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Aston Villa v Manchester United
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