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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Dion Fanning: Toure conundrum can't hold candle to the Ireland question

'Martin O'Neill decided to treat Ireland with the respect he has become used to.' Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
'Martin O'Neill decided to treat Ireland with the respect he has become used to.' Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Dion Fanning

As Manchester City attempted to count the ways they had demonstrated their love for Yaya Toure, it was pointed out that their birthday message of congratulation on Facebook had "250,000-plus likes . . . among the highest ever given on the page".

For Yaya, one suspects, this will not do it. How many likes on Facebook are enough? Are Manchester City aware that when Ryan Giggs stepped in for David Moyes, the Daily Telegraph reported that "senior figures took particular notice of the fact that a picture of Giggs taking over from Moyes gained the most 'likes' they had ever had on the club's Instagram feed".

Yaya, like the poet, must consider himself the least difficult of men, only requiring boundless love. This may or may not include record likes on Facebook but there are always more likes, across all social media.

They are always not enough. Yaya knows that he is worth whatever it is he feels he is worth right now, even if what he wants is intangible. It is the job of those who must appreciate him to know what boundless love looks like for Yaya Toure.

Yaya is only the latest footballer to toy with us in this way. It is a problem that will always be with us, a question that can never be satisfactorily answered as it will always promote another question.

Yet we cannot help asking it, torn, as we always are in matters of the heart. So we turn to the heavens once again and cry, 'What does Stephen Ireland want?'

Of course, Stephen Ireland represents more than just himself when we ask this question. This is a burden in itself as being Stephen Ireland is exhausting enough without asking him to serve as a metaphor for every footballer who has asked to be happy in ways we can never understand.

Yaya Toure channelled his Stephen Ireland last week even as Stephen Ireland was channelling his own Stephen Ireland and returning to the news.

In Dead as Doornails, Anthony Cronin recalls a time when Patrick Kavanagh stayed in the same building as him in Holloway, North London. One day, Kavanagh, the painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, and Cronin's other guests, who included a 'peripatetic Irishman', were late rising. Consequently, they were in danger of not getting to the pub before afternoon closing time.

Cronin was driving a van and, with Kavanagh beside him in the front seat while the rest huddled together in the back, they set off. As they did, the back doors on the van swung open. The 'peripatetic Irishman' had been leaning against the doors and fell out. His foot was caught in something so for a few moments he was dragged along the road. Cronin didn't know what was happening but he was alarmed and put his foot on the brakes.

Kavanagh, aware that time was running out, exclaimed, "Drive on out of that. He's only looking for attention".

In Irish public life, Stephen Ireland is the peripatetic Irishman hanging out of the back of the van who may or may not be looking for attention. Whatever he does is arresting enough that we have to stop whatever we are doing – even if all we are doing is announcing that Darren Randolph is not in the Ireland squad – and discuss his motivation.

Perhaps Martin O'Neill feared that if he were to include Stephen Ireland without first having a conversation with him the story would become even more unmanageable if Ireland subsequently pulled out. Yet the most reasonable response could have been to name Ireland in a squad and see how he reacted but the Stephen Ireland question rarely encourages reasonable debate.

Ireland, himself, is one of football's most engaging men. He is bright and articulate and ready to discuss any subject, including his own motivation, with a detached and intrigued air.

Yet he is capable of these strange moments as if you have struck up a conversation with a man on a train who makes a series of well-argued points before producing an old copy of the Weekly World News and points to a picture of Elvis driving a buggy on the moon to back up his claims.

There was a time when indulging these eccentricities seemed necessary. He was a lost but heroic figure. If his story had been a musical, he would have belted out his 'I want' song and earned our sympathy, even if it would have taken the combined genius of the Gershwins – George & Ira – Sammy Cahn and Stephen Sondheim to understand the enigma of Stephen Ireland.

If those things had been important then, we would have told him that a picture of him in his Superman underpants got the most likes on an Instagram page.

He was Ireland's exiled genius, retired due to confusion over the status of his grandmothers and our inability as a nation to show him enough love, while unfairly asking him to spend some time away from home when he would be playing for Ireland overseas.

This was once worth it and now it's no longer worth it. Yaya Toure probably feels that his time is now and if he isn't going to be made feel special on his birthday after the season he had, when is he going to be made feel special?

O'Neill decided to treat Ireland with the respect he has become used to – the summit meetings, the talks about talks – when the player has reached a point where he no longer deserves an automatic place in the squad.

He could point to some of the journeymen in the Ireland squad and insist that he is better than them but it has reached a point where it doesn't really matter. Like the poet Kavanagh, we feel time is pressing and we sense that, even with Ireland's deep sensitivities, he is only looking for attention.

'What does Stephen Ireland want?' will be a question for the ages but when it is asked about Ireland himself today, the only answer is, 'Who cares?'

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