Thursday 22 March 2018

Difficult to forgive Ireland's bad form

He has burned a lot of bridges but as the O'Neill/Keane regime rolls on, the door is still open for the self-exiled Stoke playmaker

Stephen Ireland could yet play his way into Martin O'Neill's Ireland squad if he finds his form again at Stoke City
Stephen Ireland could yet play his way into Martin O'Neill's Ireland squad if he finds his form again at Stoke City
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The annual round of 'it's now or never' for Stephen Ireland stories is moving ominously closer. 'Now or later' has always been a more accurate description of the tug-of-war in his mind over his international future.

Six and a half years have passed since the Cobh man departed the Irish camp in bizarre fashion and, while he has refused to walk back through the door, he's never really slammed it shut either.

Each of those calendar years has featured a teaser that the prodigal son is ready to return, often through the form of a suitably vague interview with the player himself or a coincidentally timed appearance from his nearest and dearest, such as his girlfriend's pre-Euro 2012 publicity as part of the promotion for 'WAG! The Musical!' – a tongue-in-cheek production which 'The Guardian' reviewer described as a "dreary experience that makes you want to gnaw your fingers to the bone and ring the Samaritans."

Perhaps that attempt at satire failed because the reality of professional football is often dafter than any attempt at parody. The case of Ireland is a prime example. "Things happened to me that made me look ridiculous," he insisted in 2009, neglecting to mention his own prominent role in that depiction.

To put that date in context, this was two years after Grannygate, a couple of months after he turned up for training in that garish pink trim Range Rover, and a further two years before he popped up on Twitter posing topless with a shisha pipe, just as Aston Villa fans were beginning to realise their £60,000 a week capture wasn't doing very much for his money. "For all I know, he could have been blowing bubbles into it or something," said his then manager Alex McLeish.


The 'Ireland for Ireland' saga has been so preposterous from the outset that it would be fitting if the chance meeting between Roy Keane and one of those famous grandmothers on a flight to Cork had some part in the conclusion. With the whole concept of Keane working as assistant manager for the FAI testing the boundaries of plausibility, it's appropriate that the two stories should overlap.

Ireland – the player that is (if this was fiction, the scriptwriters would have changed his surname because of the confusion it can cause to routine sentences) – remains a polarising figure, a bit like his fellow Corkonian.

At the height of the debate about his absence from the fold, the slightest mention of his name brought a diversity of response. He was misunderstood in some eyes, a traitor in others. Today, there's still quite a few people who respond with invective when he is floated as a candidate for Martin O'Neill's squad, but others lost interest in the anger when his form slipped. With no guarantee he would improve the team, his absence was no longer a crying shame.

The switch to Stoke has put his football skills back in the spotlight and the announcement of a three-year contract would indicate that he's made a positive impact on his surroundings and is comfortable working with Mark Hughes again. O'Neill's arrival with Keane has created the perfect opening to add to his six Irish caps and it's an encouraging sign that a meeting between the Derryman and the exile was kept under wraps.

Last week, his Stoke colleague Marc Wilson said that the club's Irish contingent had spoken with the playmaker about linking up in the green jersey and received a promising response. Wilson asserted that he would welcome it.

Admittedly, Wilson wasn't around when the last months of Steve Staunton tenure were dominated by the erratic behaviour of the young man who flew out of Slovakia on an expensive private jet after misleading the entire group.

It is known that members of that squad were opposed to rolling out the red carpet and welcoming him back. That feeling intensified when stories emerged that he was bullied leading up to Bratislava. "I don't know where this business of him being held down on the ground by two players came from," said Stephen Hunt in 2012, "That's stupid. It never happened."

The majority of that squad have moved on, however. Ireland was 21 then, a kid in that company. He turns 28 this August and would appear to have matured, although his slide from prominence has reduced curiosity in his movements. The real test of the character development will come when, as seems likely, he is presented with an opportunity to come and join the O'Neill revolution next month.

His plausible excuses to say no have disappeared, with no sense that the players will give him a bad reception and a new management team preaching a clean slate message. Sections of the crowd might take a little bit of convincing, but if Luis Suarez can spend a summer trying to leave Liverpool and still end up as a hero, the pathway to redemption is laid out. Should the performance and commitment meet the standard, Ireland will silence the critics.

The show always goes on; this episode has just been stuck on pause for too long. Darron Gibson and Andy Reid were out of the frame in drastically different circumstances, but when Trapattoni left and Noel King drafted them in, they dealt with one round of questions and minds turned to the next challenge.

It might take a small bit longer for Ireland to find normality, yet it is attainable and involvement in a prolonged summer gathering is the ideal opportunity. He can't change opinions when the calamitous handling of Grannygate is our most recent memory of his national service. The process of forgiving and forgetting can only begin when he gives the public something else to remember.


Villa's 'poisonous' atmosphere obvious from Tallaght visit

It's dangerous to read too much into small things that stick in the mind, but there was something particularly joyless about the Aston Villa squad who travelled to Dublin for a pre-season friendly with Shamrock Rovers last August.

Maybe that was coloured by the fact that Paul Lambert clearly wasn't too keen on a game that was forced on him as part of Enda Stevens' transfer between the clubs.

With players forbidden from speaking to press and limited access afforded to fans, the abiding memory from the whistle-stop visit is a bored looking squad trudging down the tunnel towards the team bus barely exchanging a word to each other, let alone anyone else, as they made their way.

It's fair to say that, behind the scenes, the Villa first-team staff didn't make a great impression on their hosts and it now appears they weren't loved by the players either, with assistant Ian Culverhouse and head of operations Gary Karsa suspended last week and not expected to return on account of their part in the 'poisonous' dressing-room atmosphere as informed sources called it.

Maybe the demeanour of the Villa group on their Tallaght visit is typical of a bored team at that stage of the preliminaries, but it seems that the picture could have painted a thousand words.


Oriel critics are on solid ground

The 'Watergate' row between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers over the maintenance of Oriel Park has delivered some laughs, but it's a shame the pitch remains a talking point. There is sensitivity about that in Louth, with plenty of locals believing the gripes about their artificial surface are borne from Dublin bitterness.

Not all the critics can be filed under that category, though. This writer grew up watching Dundalk teams of moderate ability on the old grass surface at Oriel; Stephen Kenny's current crop is a breath of fresh air and arguably the most exciting team to represent the Lilywhites in several decades.

They would be even better to watch if they had a proper pitch to play on. Without knowing the details, it's difficult to judge the watering row. But one thing is certain; any complaints that visiting teams make about the horrendous surface are fully understandable.

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