Why Stephen Ireland is still football's King of Bling
New pictures from the Stoke City star's wedding reveal a cake bigger than the groom. Ed Power reports on the life and times of a footballer who never does things by halves
In the week the Ireland soccer team blazed brightly (though not brightly enough) at the European Championships, dazzle of a very different kind was in evidence at the wedding of the side's most controversial ex-player, whose name doesn't contain the words "Keane" and "Roy".
Flanked by a beaming bride and a wedding cake so tall it surely breached local planning regulations, Cork-born Stephen Ireland lived up to his reputation as the sport's very own "king of bling" in a 'Hello!' magazine fashion spread.
Soccer stars are not known for their retiring tendencies, as the scene-stealing man-bun sported by Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Monday testified. They drive chrome-sprayed, ground-hugging sport cars, style their living rooms after French Riviera lap-dance bars and cover their torsos in daft tattoos.
Still, even by the often gauche standards of the profession, Stephen Ireland snatches the (gold-plated) biscuit. Readers of the 'Hello!' spread may, for instance, have wondered how the Stoke City midfielder had arranged for the Leaning Tower of Pisa to be transported to the scene of the nuptials in Leicestershire. In fact, this was the steroidal wedding cake. Had someone bumped into it during the wedding snaps footballer and wife might have been crushed under the dead weight of icing and cake-board.
Ireland and his UK-born bride, Jessica Lawlor, were actually hitched on June 1. However, publication of the photographs coincided with the opening of the ROI's European Championship campaign in Paris, in which the team threw agreeable shapes only to ultimate stutter to a draw against Ibrahimovic's deeply pedestrian Sweden.
If anything, Ireland has dialled down the conspicuous consumption over the past decade. When his career at Manchester City took off in the mid-2000s, the attacking playmaker embraced every over-the-top footballer cliche in the manual (and invented several of his own for good measure).
He splurged on a €7 million mansion in rural Cheshire and soon afterwards treated then girlfriend Lawlor to a €340,000 white Bentley convertible with "To Jess, Love Steve" stitched into the upholstery.
Heaven knows where she found space to park in a garage that was already brimming with motoring monstrosities. Depending on his mood, he drove a €120,000 pimped out Ranger Rover with pink alloys or a €140,000 Audi R8 with the Superman logo on the petrol cap. Behold the biggest display of automative bad taste this side of Chris Evans's 'Top Gear'.
Inside Ireland's sprawling manse the excess continued. Along with the standard 12-metre swimming pool, spa and home cinema, was a pool table with the player's name embroidered on the baize, a €130,000 fish tank that looked like it belonged in Elvis' personal aquarium, and a velvet and gold-lined bedroom suggestive of '50 Shades Of Grey', minus the class and decorum.
In the walk-in wardrobe of the couples' two-storey bedroom, meanwhile, was Ireland's collection of Christian Louboutin men shoes, starting price €600 (at least rumours of a planned shark-tank under the kitchen proved inaccurate).
Laughing at the wealthy and famous is one of our favourite pastimes, of course, and when Ireland's palace of bling was featured in a celebrity magazine there was widespread derision.
"We weren't used to having money. We were foolish and some of it was over the top," Lawlor would subsequently agree. "But we weren't harming anybody. There was never the intention to go crazy - but I suppose we did. That would never happen now. I will have a bit of bling on my wedding day but I know people will imagine us wanting a Big Fat Gypsy-style wedding."
It didn't help that Ireland was already a pantomime villain among soccer fans here. In September 2007 he essentially ended his international career by crying off an important game on the grounds his grandmother had died. This was news to said grandmother who read of the claims in the papers. When he changed his story to state it was his paternal grandmother who had passed, she too protested her continued good health. Ireland would later announce he had left to comfort Lawlor after a miscarriage.
"I decided at that stage that I must tell the truth and admit I had told lies," he would later say in a statement. "I realise now that it was a massive mistake to say my grandmothers had died and I deeply regret it. It was wrong and I sincerely apologise as I have caused a lot of problems for many people. I would like to apologise to my grandmothers and all my family. I have learnt a valuable lesson from this mess and hope those I have hurt will forgive me."
Still, to give him his due, Ireland is very much in the lower leagues when it comes to soccer kitsch. His shiny plate has certainly spared him the tonsorial excesses of players such as West Ham striker Andy Carroll, who, together with Ibrahimovic, has contributed to making the man-bun a "thing" among male 20-somethings.
This week Carroll was getting over his omission from the England European Championships squad by posing with family in the rooftop pool of a luxury hotel in Thailand. Coming off England's huffing 1-1 against a clunking Russia, you wonder who, exactly, had drawn the short straw.
Such lavishness is further eclipsed by Real Madrid strikee Karim Benzema and his acquisition of a diamond-studded €300,000 replica football as show-piece for his new crib. With 72,000 individual stones, the 1250 carat piece was created by the appropriately named Dave Bling and will no doubt prove a comfort to Benzema as he contemplates his absence from France's Euro 2016 final 23 (he was dropped after his arrest by police investigating blackmailing accusations).
In the same realm of excess is Mario Balotelli, who celebrated his season at Manchester City by zipping around in a €200,000 Bentley covered in camouflage print so gaudy you could see it from Scotland. When he was judged to have failed in Manchester, the schadenfreude lit up the internet.
"I can see where it comes from," Stephen Ireland's new bride Lawlor said in 2012 when asked about her reputation for excess. "I'm not stupid. At the end of the day, if you're going to get a car that's souped up like that, what are you going to expect?"