Ireland hints at return
THE door remains open for Stephen Ireland's return to international football, but the Aston Villa new boy failed to give the impression that he fancies a fresh start with his country as the topic sprung back onto the agenda yesterday.
Ireland, who turns 24 tomorrow, did say that he would be willing to speak with the FAI, but stressed that his club situation took priority at this juncture.
"I think the fact that I have not been back there for three years is a good indication of my situation," he said, after completing his move from Manchester City.
"I have made my thoughts clear on the situation and I have not spoken to anyone within the FAI. Club football and doing well for Aston Villa will come first for me.
"I am always open to discussions and to having a conversation. I would not rule out speaking with the FAI but, for me, I don't think my international career is something I have to answer about.
"I haven't missed it. I played only six games for the national team, so I don't really have that much to miss."
Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli, who was under the impression that the exiled star had issued a more positive statement of intent, welcomed any defrosting of relations.
Tardelli would be open to chatting with the player again after the forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers against Armenia and Andorra, and also hopes that Richard Dunne can find out if the talented playmaker is curious about a comeback now that a certain amount of water has passed under the bridge.
"We never closed the door on Stephen Ireland," said Tardelli, who was in Wexford (in the absence of Giovanni Trapattoni) to name the squad, which contained no surprises, for the September qualifiers.
"It would be good for the team, for Ireland, and for the country. I think also the other players would be happy. But now, there are two important matches. Now, we have this squad. After these matches, it's possible for us to speak with him.
"I think we need to give all our players a chance. If he decides to come back, you know, the rules for him will be like any other player. He will be treated the same."
Ireland, meanwhile, prefaced his introduction to the English Midlands media yesterday by saying that he had signed a confidentiality clause upon leaving Manchester City this week.
He then unleashed a critique of his former club that was as lacerating as it was quietly spoken. Heaven help City when he is free to speak his mind.
Ireland claimed that Roberto Mancini has no relationship with his players and that James Milner is in for a shock at Manchester City.
Aston Villa's new signing, who was valued at £8m in the deal that enabled Milner to move the other way, revealed how deeply the money culture is ripping the soul out of City as he prepares to make his debut for his new club, away to Newcastle United tomorrow.
Ireland delayed Milner's £26m transfer by holding out for a £1.5m payoff. But while admitting that his controversial exit was "heartbreaking", he hit out at the ethos of a club where even the youngest professionals "are coming in with £10,000 watches and walking around as if they have played 200 Premier League games".
Ireland, City's player of the year under Mark Hughes in 2008-09, has signed a four-year deal with Villa, where Randy Lerner, the chairman, and Paul Faulkner, the chief executive, promptly earned his respect even as Martin O'Neill was leaving as manager.
"It was obvious straightaway they were gentlemen, who knew properly how to run a club," Ireland said.
"I think Aston Villa got a really good deal," he added, without a hint of arrogance. "We might not have the finances of City, but I think we've definitely got team spirit, a good bunch of lads who are a good age and really want to achieve something.
"I've settled in so well, so fast. Even the young lads are so polite. I'm quite shocked with that. At City they're not like that. They're coming in with £10,000 watches on their wrists and walking around as if they have played 200 Premier League games.
"I can really see myself having a good time here."
After Craig Bellamy's revelations before his acrimonious departure from the City of Manchester Stadium that Mancini had not spoken to him for nine months, Ireland confirmed that the City manager shows no desire to build any rapport with a squad assembled at a cost in excess of £300m.
"I don't think loyalty is much to many people at City any more," Ireland said. "The people I grew up playing with, and being coached by, have gone and there are lots of faces who do not feel that much for Manchester City.
"Mancini doesn't really build relationships with players. He brought Patrick Vieira in (from Inter Milan) and when I spoke to him about his relationship, he said he doesn't really have one. I think that's the way he (Mancini) is. He has everybody a bit on edge.
"I guess James Milner must think the grass is greener on the other side. He's going to get a shock soon because it's definitely not that way."
Ireland, who is relishing the opportunity to earn a regular first-team place again, is not convinced that City's model of buying two high-profile players for every position can yield instant success.
"There is definitely pressure at City. They're on a journey to try to be champions and they want it overnight as well," he said.
"I really don't know if Man City can win the Premier League. I have no idea. I hadn't felt part of it at City for a long time. There are so many new players, I don't think you can know what is going to happen."
Ireland, who missed only three games in 2008-09, scoring 13 times from midfield, disputes Mancini's claim that his head had gone down, asserting that he was regularly the best player in training with the best fitness records.
"It was like banging my head up against a concrete wall, it didn't matter what I did in training, I was not going to get anywhere," he said.
"I'm glad to be here, where hopefully I can get recognition for working hard in training, in the gym and on the field."
Having trained with his new team-mates for the first time, Ireland added: "I haven't worked that hard in months."
If Ireland plays with the same freedom with which he talks, Villa fans are in for a treat.
Newcastle United v Aston Villa,
Live, ESPN, tomorrow, 1.30