Saturday 18 November 2017

Ireland’s Villa move a chink of light in dark week for Irish exports

James Lawton

James Lawton

If there is such a thing as a floating Irish fan of the Premier League, they might just consider a flirtation with Aston Villa.

The club may appear to have diminishing horizons with the departure of Martin O'Neill but what remains in place, clearly, is a belief in the enduring quality and identity of the best of the nation's football talent.

For a second straight season they have put their faith in an Irish player not only rejected but humiliated in the frenzy of Manchester City's attempt to buy instant success.

First they recognised both the hurt and the abandoned potential of Richard Dunne when City's chief executive Garry Cook said that, whatever the player's professional qualities, he would never sell them a souvenir shirt in the Far Eastern market.

It was a crass dismissal of a superb servant, one who had brilliantly reconstructed his career, but Villa were happy for him to become strong at the broken place on their behalf. Now they are contemplating a similar resurrection for his compatriot Stephen Ireland, the £8m makeweight in James Milner's move to City.

This second move may not automatically endear Villa to the average Irish patriot, given Ireland's singular lack of commitment to the football of his homeland, but at least O'Neill's replacement, Kevin MacDonald, has given much-needed support for the 'made in Ireland' brand.

It is a timely act of faith, given the shocking treatment meted out to Ireland's erstwhile City team-mate Shay Given and Tottenham's suddenly ill-considered old favourite Robbie Keane.

Given, the vote of many hard judges looking for the most reliable goalkeeper in the top flight of the English game, and Keane have both been made to feel superfluous in the last few weeks, Ireland having earlier been left in no doubt that City coach Roberto Mancini considered him unfit for the purpose of a title-contending club of apparently unlimited riches. This, anyway you look at it, has been a savage culling of the pride of a football nation.

Given's dislocation is surely the most appalling. A player of prodigious nerve and consistency who left the personal fortress of Newcastle after 10 fruitless years in pursuit of some glory at City, at 34 -- and still at the peak of his powers -- has been given the choice of opulent obscurity on the bench with an enhanced contract guaranteed to make him a multi-millionaire or a return to the fringes of the serious action with a club like Fulham.

Mancini, of course, is merely exerting the time-honoured right of any coach in preferring the emerging England goalkeeper Joe Hart to Given. What is unacceptable, surely, is the decision to give the latter only the choice between hugely rewarded inaction or a place outside the elite of contenders. This throws City's unbounded wealth into a monstrous light. Not only do they appear to believe that they can buy success -- an extremely dubious theory, according to all we know of football history -- but also the obliteration of the best hopes of a talented player of great competitive character.

Stephen Ireland, of course, is not likely to generate quite such instant sympathy in Ireland. While Given has made his presence in the Irish team a crucial aspect of his professional life, Ireland has done precisely the opposite, and in the most shameless of ways. However, in the context of Manchester City he is surely right to be aggrieved.

Ireland, it seemed, was discounted by Mancini at an extremely early point in the exercise and it is hard not to believe that one factor counting against him was that he was part of an old and discredited phase of the club's convulsive history.

At 30, Keane appeared to have escaped such arbitrary judgment after the lost seasons at Liverpool and Celtic, which seemed a deserved achievement for a player of unlimited energy who, in 197 games for Tottenham, scored 80 goals and a high level of respect among the White Hart Lane faithful.

Now, though, Harry Redknapp has conclude that Keane's time has passed, a ruling that seems particularly harsh considering that the Dubliner played a crucial part in helping to restore the Champions League hopes of Spurs by contributing significantly to the second goal that reduced the shocking lead of Young Boys of Switzerland to one goal.

Still the verdict is that Keane's face no longer fits in a striking squad of Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and the somewhat less-than-relentless Roman Pavlyuchenko. At least, though, Keane does not seem to have the dilemma of Given in choosing between well-heeled semi-retirement and life back among the big-league no-hopers. Keane and his salary, plainly, are being moved on.


Meanwhile, Stephen Ireland may well have the best chance of returning to the mainstream of the game and retrieving some lost status for Ireland's ability to produce major players for major situations. Liverpool icon Ian St John certainly backs the Irishman's ability to restate his creative value.

While reviewing the City move for the enfant terrible of Italian football, Mario Balotelli, St John said: "You cannot but feel some sympathy for Stephen Ireland. We know he has a somewhat flaky reputation, like Balotelli, but it should be recognised that when he played for City he always put in a good shift and I expect him to prosper at Villa. They need a player of his invention -- as do City."

The caretaker MacDonald, who as an assistant national team coach worked with the young Ireland, has been quick to echo the point. "James (Milner) and Stephen are different kinds of players," said MacDonald. "James has strength and power all round the pitch. Stephen is a very gifted, inventive player who probably links the play more."

At the end of a bad week for Irish football pride, or perhaps more acutely a sense of fair assessment of available talent, it was a statement of valuable encouragement. Not just to Stephen Ireland, but the idea that not all of the game believes that players of proven ability, wherever they come from, have become as dispensable as an old piece of furniture.

Irish Independent

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