Sport Soccer

Sunday 22 April 2018

The Ireland question

Stephen Ireland isn't pointing fingers, but he seems to have been frequently wronged, writes Dion Fanning

Stephen Ireland's family were waiting for him at Aston Villa's training ground on Friday and not much else matters to him.

Ireland had met the press. He had been engaging, perceptive and honest. He had condemned Manchester City and their heartless project. He had criticised the FAI and Giovanni Trapattoni, hailed Steve Staunton as his kind of manager and then spent some time saying much of the fault for his problems with Ireland lay with him, not Giovanni Trapattoni.

He said he was open to having a conversation about a return to international football but later said the decision was "out of my hands. My decision has been made".

He had wondered about the youth of today, or at least the youth of Manchester City with their "ten-grand watches" and when his day's work was done he drove away in a two-tone Bentley. But these are not Stephen Ireland's greatest contradictions.

"I haven't got much self-confidence or self-belief, which is something I need to work on," he said later in the day, a statement which is surprising but also makes perfect sense.

Stephen Ireland's sensitivity and intelligence were obvious during the hour he spent talking to the media on Friday. His voice broke at times, hinting at nerves rather than emotion. The fact that he might think something different tomorrow (or even later today) doesn't prevent him believing everything he says and articulating that belief.

He was disillusioned at Manchester City, now he has recovered his illusion: Birmingham is the place where he will find happiness.

Ireland appears to have no intention of playing for his country but he has enough self-knowledge not to rule it out, in effect not to rule out that he might think differently some day. If you were to ask him if he planned to ever live in Cobh again, instead of asking him about playing for Ireland, you would probably get the same answer.

"Roy Keane has said in the past, a lot of changes have to be made in the FAI. I think I've been out of it so long it's not a matter of me answering the question yes or no as to whether I'd go back again. The decision has been made and it's more important for me to concentrate on Aston Villa and get myself back on track."

Right now-- and everything for him exists in the eternal now -- playing for Aston Villa excites him. "I would rather win the Premier League than the World Cup," he says.

He watched the play-off game in Paris but he hesitates to say he was just another fan. He watched it "like anybody else would, shouting at the TV at some of the decisions they make". Yet he also looks at it differently, thinking as he watches, "if I was there I would have done this pass". Some fans do that too, but Ireland could be living the fantasy if he wanted.

"I never had a problem with the game, I loved the buzz around the games, seeing all the fans on the bus, that kind of thing. It was the nine days, ten days before the game I didn't enjoy. I only played six games. After my first game I knew it wasn't for me, I knew I couldn't deal with it. I think it was all down to the treatment I got as a kid. The FAI never looked after the lads outside of Dublin."

These are familiar complaints from Ireland, who says he has done "research" and discovered that nothing has changed, even if the senior team is more representative of the country than ever.

"I was looking at the squads under age now and I think 98 per cent of them are from Dublin. It was exactly the same way when I was growing up. We didn't get looked after. I used to leave at 6.30 in the morning to get the train. I'd get there at 11 o'clock, when I was 13 or 14, I'd have to make my own way from the train station to the training complex. You weren't treated really well. I can't see how that's changed with the research I've been doing. I always felt it was a big graft to go and play in the squads."

Yet, despite those reservations, he was willing to meet Trapattoni.

"From the first time I met him with my adviser in a hotel with Liam Brady and [Marco] Tardelli there and the conversation was just really strange and bizarre. We sat there face to face but we didn't really talk much because he didn't speak much English so Liam Brady had to translate. I'm not sure he [Trapattoni] was that keen on me. The more and more he saw me, the more keen he probably was but at the start he was probably getting some hassle to bring me back. I don't think he knew much about me as a player.

"As time has gone on, he seems more desperate to get me back than the first time I met him. There were instances in our conversation that were strange and didn't seem too appealing. Like I say, my Ireland career didn't end the best way and if I could go back I would change it, but it's happened; it's over three years now, it is what it is but I'm happy enough with where I'm at now."

Kevin MacDonald was part of Steve Staunton's coaching staff. Now he is caretaker manager of Villa, which allows Ireland to make sense of the present and the past simultaneously. "He's honest. You can speak to him when you want, the door's always open. He's a proper man-manager, which is what I like."

During the turbulent times following his withdrawal from the Ireland squad in Slovakia, things got rough for Ireland. His strange behaviour then, he says, was an attempt to show that it didn't bother him.

"Yes, it was a difficult time for me and my family. We had a lot of hate mail at the time, a lot of bad press, part of that was my own fault of course. That's the reason why I did that Superman boxers thing, just to say I'm not that bothered. A few people helped me out. It would have been easier for me to go back with Ireland if Kevin and Steve Staunton were still there as coach and manager."

The hate mail was bad he said, but he isn't pointing fingers. "There was a lot of personal stuff, family stuff. Lots of stuff going on near my house as well which wasn't nice, but I brought it upon myself, I blame myself."

He is not even blaming Trapattoni. "At the start I don't think he knew who I was. Sven [Goran Eriksson] was talking about me and the Irish fans were saying when he took over that he should try and get me back. But I didn't make my decision based on that. It's not Trapattoni's fault. It's no one's fault but my own. If I want to go back, he told me the door was open but I guess I'll take the blame on that."

A change of manager would probably make no difference. "I haven't really been getting on well with Italians recently," he says, thinking about Roberto Mancini. "I'm not too sure [if a change of manager would make a difference]. I really don't know. I have nothing against Trapattoni whatsoever. I have nothing against the next manager that comes in. I had a good understanding with Steve Staunton, he was such a nice guy. Even now we're still good friends. There's really nothing, no matter who has the job, or whatever happens it's out of my hands. My decision's really been made."

Ireland is probably no more mixed-up than many 23-year-olds, especially if they were also asked to fight for survival in the English Academy system and then rewarded extravagantly for their success. Manchester City and their renowned youth coaches helped develop Ireland but the transformation of the club drove him away.

"The money's in football now and it's not up to me to decide what I'm worth or what I'm paid. That's decided by the levels that are out there these days. It's not really my fault if I'm given a certain amount or other players, like City are supposedly paying Yaya Toure £220,000. That's not his fault. If it's offered to you, you're not going to say 'no thanks'.

"It puts the spotlight on players but you have to put that to one side and play football and play it well. The way I look at it over the past eight or nine years I've never really been on good money. I think I've only ever really been on what I'd call decent money for one year. People like Micah Richards and Michael Johnson were on a lot higher money than me three or four years before I was, so for me, if you're playing football the money will follow and it's no different for me right now."

He wants to play football and today, on his 24th birthday, he should be given his first chance with Villa. The rest doesn't concern him anymore. "It's a fresh start for me and my family if we move down here. I gave a lot of people easy reasons to judge me but I think I had a good enough bond with the fans at Manchester City and the club and stuff like that. It's easy for people to judge me. But it's a fresh new start, there are new fans to impress."

He wants them to form an opinion based on what happens on the field. "People close to me know my image is not right, it's not the truth. People can say what they want about me. I listen to stuff, I read stuff but it doesn't really bother me.

"I do a lot for charity, I have a hospice I look after and it's really close to my heart. It's something I care about. We did a charity ball and raised £150,000 in one night. But we hope to have four or five events like that every year. I'll try and keep on top of that if I can. I know I have a good opportunity because I have a lot of time on my hands. It's a good use of a time. When I swap jerseys on a Saturday with people like Gerrard and Lampard, instead of keeping it for my collection, my wardrobe and doing nothing with it, this way I can help make some money for charities instead."

Ireland knows that the years at Villa will shape how he is viewed. "I haven't done anything I've regretted but I definitely brought on the negative press."

His family have been with him all week at the Villa training ground, underlining what matters to him. "I have my family close to me, my friends. That's all that matters. Anyone's welcome to judge anyone, whether they have reason to or not."

Sunday Independent

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