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'My life was turned upside down by having two kids on my own at the age of 18' - Stephen Ireland

Now 33, the ex-Ireland and Manchester City midfielder has opened up about his fall-out from international football and the demise of his club career.

Ireland most recently lined out for Stoke City.
Ireland most recently lined out for Stoke City.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

STEPHEN IRELAND IS a player whose talent promised so much but, ultimately, his career fell well short of expectations. 

Having made his Premier League debut for Manchester City at 19, the Corkman would become one the brightest prospects in England’s top flight — earning a place on the shortlist for PFA Young Player of the Year in 2009. 

At international level, the midfielder scored four goals in his first six senior appearances for Ireland before the now infamous fall-out known as ‘granny-gate’. 

His career went into a tailspin in recent years after spells with Aston Villa, Newcastle United (on loan) and Stoke City.

At 33 years of age he is now without a club but addressed the issues over his career in a wide-ranging interview with Sam Lee in The Athletic ahead of appearing in Vincent Kompany’s testimonial on Wednesday night at the Etihad Stadium.

And the former Irish international spoke about the family challenges that had a huge impact on the early stages of his career

“My life was absolutely turned upside down by having two kids on my own at the age of about 18, because I split with the mother,” Ireland says. “So I was here with them on my own from 17, 18, 19 and it was tough. Really, really tough.

“At the time there was no real player support. Man City at the time didn’t have anything like that in place. There was no help. I was on £85 a week playing in the Premier League with two kids at 19.

“My daughter was eight months old and my son was 22 months old, roughly, and it was tough. I didn’t drive. I had no family support. My mum and dad split up — my mum was over here, didn’t speak to me — and my dad was in Ireland. I don’t hold against my dad at all. I just took all the pressure on myself and I was left in the lurch on my own.

“I was turning up to games in a taxi, getting out with a baby in my arms, a little toddler and a wash bag walking into the stadium for the game at City, and the fans must have thought: ‘Who’s this maniac?’

I had to go in and play against [Manchester] United and teams like that live on TV and my two kids are being babysat by Trevor Sinclair’s cousin in the players’ lounge.

“I was seeing guys at the time like Micah Richards and Joe Hart who were going home and they were off celebrating. They would say: ‘Stephen, are you coming out tonight?’ But I was at home changing nappies and eating a takeaway, watching TV on a Saturday night. You never felt like you’d even achieved because you’re sat in a house with two little kids under the age of two on your own, lonely, and sad.”

stephen-ireland-and-martin-skrtel Ireland up against Martin Skrtel of Slovakia in September 2007. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“With the Ireland thing, the first couple of camps I got called up I was the happiest man on the planet,” he says. “It was like I’d won the lottery, I loved it, it was such an amazing achievement.

“After that it became a bit of a circumstance thing. Steve Staunton [the Ireland manager] said I could bring my kids and they would put them in a hotel room with a babysitter, but what kind of life is that for two kids? So I didn’t do it and I had to pick and choose my moments that I could play for Ireland and when I couldn’t. I just found the 10-day camps were too much for me to give.

“I remember I was playing live on TV for City, I was meant to fly out that night with Richard Dunne to meet up with Ireland, and I’d ring Steve Staunton up after the game and say: ‘I feel sick, I can’t come’. He was like: ‘I just saw you play live on TV!’ I couldn’t sacrifice going to play for Ireland, because literally for some reason it became a case of having to pick Ireland over my kids, and all day I’m going to pick my kids.”

On the infamous episode that marked the close of his international career, Ireland spoke about his wish that he had handled things differently but has not regretted since not being in action for Ireland.

“I just wanted it to blow over and before you know it, it just went boom,” Ireland says. “It was mental. Mental. And I’m thinking: ‘All I said was something small.’ I know it’s not. I know it’s not something you do. It was in the heat of the moment in the changing room after the match. I was buying myself time, basically.

“The other players asked where I was going, so I said: ‘Back to England for a few days because my nan’s not well.’ They were giving me hugs and that, and I felt like a prick then. Imagine going back in and saying: ‘Alright lads, listen…’

At that point I actually felt like retiring from football. I swear to god, I actually considered retiring from football. I text my accountant and said: ‘Do I have enough money to retire?’ And he said: ‘Yeah you do, but it depends how much is enough’, and I was quite young.

“On reflection, I probably should’ve gone back and faced the music for a couple of days, but I guess I kind of ran from it. I was doing so well at Man City I didn’t want to go back, even more so.

“I wish I had dealt with things differently, that the whole thing was dealt with differently, actually, on both sides, but I wouldn’t say I regret not having played for Ireland since.

“It’s the family thing, as well. I’m such a family person and I just found it very hard. That’s why I respect the guys who do turn up and play 50, 60, 70 times for their country, because they were able to make that sacrifice and they were able to show up every time. Unfortunately for Ireland it’s not that I didn’t care, I just couldn’t do it. That will stick with me forever.”

- Originally published 13.00 

Read the full long read interview on The Athletic (subscription) 

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Ben Blake

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