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'Stephen has some crazy friends from Cork, but he's a good lad. Very family-orientated'

Emile Heskey has spoken warmly about his former team-mate at Aston Villa Stephen Ireland.

Stephen Ireland in action against Stoke in 2012.
Stephen Ireland in action against Stoke in 2012.
Image: Mike Egerton

EMILE HESKEY SMILES warmly speaking about his friendship with former team-mate Stephen Ireland and still believes the midfielder can make a comeback in top-level football at the age of 33.

Ireland spoke about his career in an in-depth interview with The Athletic this week, opening up about tough times as a Premier League footballer during his stays at Manchester City, Aston Villa and Stoke City.

Heskey and Ireland spent two seasons together at Villa Park, but the latter failed to nail down a regular starting position despite a promising second campaign which saw him collect Villa’s Player of the Season award in 2012.

The Cork native, so often set back by unfortunate injuries, signed in the summer of 2010 after being forced out of Man City by manager Roberto Mancini. But he was dealt an immediate setback with Martin O’Neill bizarrely leaving the Midlanders just hours after Ireland signed his contract.

The midfielder struggled under Gerard Houllier was left out of Paul Lambert’s squad for the second half of his final season at the club, making just 13 appearances, leaving to join Stoke City in 2013.

Heskey maintains a good relationship with Ireland. The ex-England striker, along with Darren Fletcher, play five-a-side football with Ireland’s young son, Joshua, who is on the books at Stoke City and has represented England at U16 level.

“We live around the same area,” Heskey says speaking with The42. “And every now and again he will call us up and ask if we want to play five-a-side. So we bring the kids down and we play together. His son is doing really well.”

emile-heskey Heskey and Ireland spent two seasons together at Aston Villa. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Heskey says he just can’t quite get his head around why things didn’t turn out well for Ireland at Aston Villa — at the time still flying relatively high off the back of promising campaigns with Man City where he was named Player of the Year in 2009.

“He’s a great player. The thing is, he came to Aston Villa and we had a great squad. But it was a difficult time because Martin O’Neill left [the day] Stephen had signed. It was a tough time for him anyway, but to come in there and be one of the best players in training, honestly, I’m looking at him thinking ‘Why are you here?’ He was a step or two ahead of everyone.

“I don’t know why he never played more. He must have been sitting there frustrated knowing that he was probably better than most of the other players there, but he wasn’t given the opportunity to show that. He obviously had his injuries and all that and now he’s trying to get back into football.

“Two years ago he broke his leg, got a bad break, and now he’s trying to get back in. But yeah, one of the best trainers I’ve ever seen. I swear, if you come and watch him train, you can understand what I mean.

stephen-ireland-and-carl-robinson Ireland won Aston Villa's Player of the Season award in 2012 but made just 47 appearances during three seasons. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“You’d be wondering why he isn’t on the pitch and why he isn’t getting his chance. I don’t know if he’d been into the managers office to give him what for, but I just didn’t understand why Stephen didn’t play as much as he did.”

Speaking with The Athletic, Ireland admitted that he demanded a lot of his managers and would quiz them consistently about ways in which he could improve his game. With Houllier replacing O’Neill in the dugout ahead of the 2010/11 season, however, Ireland struggled to show his best.

“I didn’t see that [confrontational side] in him,” Heskey says. “You see players mouthing off and getting in trouble and you can understand why they’re not playing, but I never saw that with Stephen. It wasn’t that he was mouthing off to the manager and telling him what for — I don’t know if he did that behind closed doors — but in front of everyone he was a respectful man.

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“I don’t understand why he didn’t go any further at Villa. It was a strange one for me. All I saw was a lad training hard. Fitness-wise he was up there and ability-wise he was even better. It was weird.”

The former England striker, now 41, believes Ireland is often misunderstood as a footballer and as a person. Often misrepresented, he sees a different side to the former Ireland international — someone always dedicated to his wife and young family, and a man who has always put them ahead of his own footballing ambitions.

“He’s a good lad. He’s funny,” Heskey says. “He’s got some crazy friends from Cork — they’re just nuts. But he’s a good lad, keeps himself to himself. He’s very family-orientated and doesn’t like to be dragged away from his family at all.

“Can he make a comeback? At the end of the day you’ve got to be given the opportunity to come back. You’ve seen players come back at 30-odd. We took Gary McAllister at Liverpool when he was 36 and he played an integral part in us winning the treble. So yeah, why not?”

Emile Heskey was at the Sport Ireland Campus today to help launch a new season of action on the eir sport pack. eir sport viewers can watch every game in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League plus UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers on Virgin Media Sport, which is now part of the eir sport pack, as well as live FA Cup games, SSE Airtricity League games & the Republic of Ireland’s U21 Home Qualifiers.

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Aaron Gallagher

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