Saturday 24 August 2019

Why did we care for Rebel's cause?

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Do you remember caring about Stephen Ireland? It's one of those past enthusiasms which seem slightly embarrassing now, like admiring the chutzpah of Seánie FitzPatrick, the humility of Seán Quinn and the marriage of Tiger Woods. But we did care, we really did.

This time last year, nothing in Irish soccer seemed more important than whether Mad Steve would nod his baldy head in our direction and condescend to play for the country of his birth.

We cared because Stephen Ireland seemed to have the world at his feet. He was coming off a season when he'd been the outstanding player for Manchester City, making Robinho look pedestrian by comparison and looking like the most skillful Irish player to burst on to the scene since the teenage years of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. And with City declaring their ambition to become part of the European elite and lashing out the dosh to prove the seriousness of this aspiration, the future looked bright for young Ireland.

Hence the hushed anticipation as we waited for the Cobh boy to blow some white smoke in our direction. In reality, he was lucky to be given another chance by the country which shares his name. He had, after all, deserted the team when they needed him, his contempt for the jersey made obvious by the fact that he produced an excuse which made 'the dog ate my homework' look convincing by comparison. Yet it was us who were begging him for another chance. This had something to do with the man's undoubted talent and also something to do with the fact that in the post-Saipan era even the silliest of complaints against the FAI were deemed worthy of respect.

Hence Stephen's claims that he had quit the Ireland team on account of the poor treatment accorded to Cork players at youth level were not laughed immediately out of court, as they should have been. After all, this Rebelphobia hadn't prevented him from playing at senior level for several years before he committed the act of Grannycide which propelled him into exile. But Stephen Ireland was a handy stick with which to beat Giovanni Trapattoni. We compared the midfield dream team of Ireland and Andy Reid with the prosaic duo of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews and made the absent duo into a world-class pairing, their stature growing with every game they didn't play. It became routine for every criticism of Trapattoni to include the absence of Ireland from Ireland, as though the Italian could somehow have forced the Manchester City man to tog out for us.

That was a year ago. Things are very different now. In comparison to Glenn Whelan, who played a key role as Stoke City made the top half of the table, Stephen Ireland had a negligible season. New manager Roberto Mancini didn't like the cut of his jib and quickly marginalised him. Ireland's two most memorable moments were making an ill-judged intervention in the Wayne Bridge v John Terry soap opera by displaying a T-shirt message of support for his team-mate and failing to track back and pick up Paul Scholes as the Old Trafford veteran scored a last-minute winner in the Manchester derby. For all he has contributed in the last 12 months, he might as well have been in a coma.

This season began with Ireland making it clear that if he didn't receive the same wages at Aston Villa as he had at Manchester City, he'd have no problem languishing in the reserves at Eastlands and taking up space. He then made his debut in a 6-0 thrashing by Newcastle United, his performance suggesting that Mancini may have been right in taking an agnostic stance towards this gifted but flakey midfielder. Twelve months on, he seems like much less of a loss to his native land.

Yet there he was last week telling us once more about how he wasn't going to play for Ireland. He was, said Mad Steve, not blaming anyone but himself, before proceeding to once more trot out the old canard of his disillusionment by harsh treatment when still a youth international. But who cares? Do you? I'm the same, in fact I'm embarrassed by the fact that this time last year I thought the long-term future of the Irish team was bound up with the whim of Irish sport's most talented toddler.

Good luck at Villa, Stephen. Get back to us when you grow up.

Sunday Independent

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport