City ace Ireland hints at return to green fold
WELCOME to part infinity of the Stephen Ireland saga. Another day brings another clue about his feelings over a return to represent his country. The update? At best, the glass is now half full.
We have been down this road before and felt the pain of unrequited love, so it would be unwise to get carried away by the latest reports. Ultimately, this is a special case that should be filed in the trusty old 'believe it when you see it' folder.
Nevertheless, the tentative message emitted from the Manchester City star through the medium of a phone call with a journalist who was in the company of his father provides some chink of light in this protracted issue.
"Yeah, yeah, but I'm just trying to keep my head down at the moment," the 22-year-old is reported to have said when asked if it was true that he was planning to return in the early part of 2009.
Hardly a statement of great intent, but then when you consider that as recently as last month, he was talking about a comeback very much in conditional terms then it measures as a degree of progress.
Did it come as surprise news to the FAI? Well, their spokesman issued a terse 'no comment' yesterday, adding that they wouldn't be speculating on any contact between the player and Giovanni Trapattoni.
The interesting context, in that regard, is that last weekend the Italian put the match between Fulham and Manchester City on his itinerary for a rare trip to the UK. Assuming that he isn't going to learn much about Richard Dunne at this stage, then another look at Ireland must have been a significant factor in that decision. Perhaps, even, an opportunity to seek another meeting; their first encounter in a Manchester hotel, on the same day that Steve Finnan and Andy O'Brien were lobbied, did not yield the desired outcome.
Aside from Don Givens, the Ireland camp have been keen to veer away from criticising the talented playmaker for his stance, if failing to hide their exasperation.
Last month, Liam Brady paid tribute to his outstanding form in this campaign, albeit while rejecting the notion that management could do more to tempt him back into the World Cup qualifiers.
"I wish there was a resolution, absolutely I do," said Brady. "I agree that he's been Man City's best player this year, but the situation is as it is.
"Is it on the manager's agenda? I think you should ask Stephen Ireland what's on his agenda. We've been to see the boy, we've asked him to come back. What do you want us to do? Go over every week."
Some think that would be worth it if we could get the Cobh maestro back in a green shirt. Certainly, on this season's form, there's little disputing that he would be a serious asset for Trapattoni, shorn of his main midfield man in the shape of Steven Reid.
Of course, that would not exactly be a like for like switch and it would be intriguing to see where the Italian might like to accommodate the prodigal son. With City, he has been more effective centrally, but also prominent from the right side.
Considering the 69-year-old prefers to play with two deep seated central midfielders, a question mark would surround the suitability of Ireland for such a role, although he has definitely matured physically and improved his all round game in this term.
It's possible that he could envisage him as a midfield alternative to Aidan McGeady or even a second striking option or, more accurately, an extra midfielder for games where he might prefer to go with just one up front; away to Italy springs to mind in that regard.
To hypothesise too much is to tease, however. For we are still unsure about what is really going on in Stephen Ireland's world.
The main source touting his comeback is his father, Michael, who played a pivotal part in the budding talent's football education, although other sources claim they've had their fallouts in recent years.
Like many families, you might say, but the fractured relationships around Ireland have to be considered before too stern a judgment of his character is made. His skill at his profession makes him a valuable commodity and has brought a lot of attention -- some unwanted, some courted. Think Superman shorts and pink wheeled vehicles.
"The country needs him," said his father. "He's a good player and he'll go back in his own time.
"He's just focusing on his family right now, and Man City. He's keeping his head down but he'll be back, hopefully, next year.
"I would never put pressure on him but I'd love to see him in the next World Cup."
Alas, if Trap's charges are to have the best chance possible of making it to South Africa in 2010 then they need the player to find his focus quickly. Next year sounds like an aspirational long term target, but it is a calendar year in which the Irish must hit the ground running.
A fixture anomaly means that while most of Europe will be playing friendlies on the February 11, Ireland have competitive action with the visit of Georgia.
Then, in a five-day period at the end of March and beginning of April, there is the pivotal double header against Bulgaria at Croke Park and the world champions at an Italian venue yet to be confirmed.
The second meeting with the Bulgarians, in Sofia, is postponing the summer holidays until after the June 6. Put simply, our World Cup fate could hinge on coming through that quartet of games unscathed.
Assimilating Ireland into the picture means that he will have to be in the frame from the outset.
It could be too late if he leaves it until the autumn, so that's why the need for urgency is pressing.
His resolution at the turn of the New Year should be to return with haste -- if he genuinely intends to at some stage. That means declaring his availability for the visit of Georgia.
A time for action, not words.