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What happened to Stephen Ireland?

10 years on from his winning goal against Wales at Croke Park, the Stoke star has become one of Irish football’s most elusive figures.

Ireland's Stephen Ireland celebrates scoring the opening goal against Wales.
Ireland's Stephen Ireland celebrates scoring the opening goal against Wales.

10 YEARS AGO, a morning newspaper headline caught the Irish sporting public’s mood perfectly: ‘Stephen Hero’. A play on James Joyce’s posthumously-published autobiographical novel, it referenced the man of the moment: Stephen Ireland.

There was undoubtedly something unique and special about the slight-but-potent Cork-born footballer.

Ireland’s first-ever soccer match at Croke Park was a momentous occasion but seldom felt like one. It was a turgid affair, contested between two mediocre international sides who were a long way away from the kind of success both have enjoyed in more recent times.

As Jamie Jackson put it in The Guardian: “The crowd who witnessed a dour encounter might just hope it is another 106 years until football is played at Croke Park.”

With the Irish rugby team’s enthralling victory over England having taken place a month previously, the occasion felt like a bad hangover to a thoroughly enjoyable initiation party — a game played out in slow motion in stark contrast with the phenomenal speed of thought produced by Ronan O’Gara and co.

But there was one saving grace. One brief glimpse of a more promising future. In the 39th minute, Robbie Keane played a clever through ball to an onrushing Ireland, who outsprinted the chasing defenders before coolly rounding goalkeeper Danny Coyle and slotting the ball home consummately. It was a moment of class that the game hardly deserved and one which proved decisive.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

A 1-0 victory, no matter how unspectacular, was a morale boost for Steve Staunton’s side, who had previously won just one of their four opening Euro 2008 qualifiers, losing twice, including the infamous 5-2 defeat in Cyprus.

The Irish side were low on confidence, but the same could not be said of their midfield prodigy, who had been offered trials by as many as 22 top British clubs by the age of 12.

Moreover, Ireland was only 20 at the time of the Wales encounter. A 17-year-old Gareth Bale also featured, but the Wales starlet was eclipsed by his Irish counterpart.

The Croke Park encounter was Ireland’s fourth cap. In three starts for his country, he had scored three goals. He would go on to score one more goal, make one more home appearance, featuring in two further games — both against Slovakia.

Despite their woe in Cyprus, there were signs of potential in this Irish side. In their opening fixture, they went to Germany and put in a creditable performance, losing only 1-0 to a team that would ultimately go on to reach the Euro 2008 final. A talented Czech Republic side were later held at Lansdowne Road, while the likes of John O’Shea, Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff were all relatively close to their footballing prime.

Ireland was supposed to be the creative force in central midfield that the side were crying out for, and for a brief period he was.

But six months after the Wales affair, Ireland would play what will almost certainly now turn out to be the last appearance he makes for his country. Fittingly, for an international career that had been as prolific as it was brief, he scored in the 2-2 draw away to Slovakia, dinking home Kevin Kilbane’s deflected cross.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

Days later, Ireland faced a must-win qualifier in Czech Republic, but the young midfielder was unavailable — he had been granted compassionate leave. His grandmother died, or so people thought.

It turned out that Ireland’s girlfriend had tragically suffered a miscarriage and he was trying to protect her. He later recalled in a Daily Mail interview of learning the bad news just 45 minutes before the Slovakia game and encountering Steve Staunton: “I should just have told him the truth. He is such a good person. I would have trusted him with my life. So why didn’t I trust him with the truth? I don’t know. I panicked and told him there had been a death in my family. I said I had to get back and he said: okay.”

Ireland was a young 21-year-old under immense pressure from various sources. Like many young men would in such difficult circumstances, he made a mistake — that is easily forgivable, even if it was an extremely naive way of handling the situation.

The incident prompted what appeared to be a self-imposed international exile. Since then, there has been too many will-he-won’t-he-return moments to mention individually.

Roy Keane was among those calling for his comeback, saying in 2009: “I remember hearing about Brian Clough trying to get Archie Gemmill to sign for Forest — he slept on his sofa. That’s what I’d do with Stephen… Well, I wouldn’t sleep on his sofa, I would sleep outside his house to try and get him back for Ireland.”

Both Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill tried manfully to persuade Ireland to end his international exodus. The latter, speaking in 2014, commented: “I tried to get hold of Stephen a couple of times by phone,” he told reporters. “I didn’t get through, that’s fine, okay, not a problem. Eventually his agent spoke to the FAI and then I spoke to the agent. It seemed to mirror what Mark Hughes was actually saying or had been saying in the papers although I hadn’t actually spoken to Mark Hughes, I don’t know whether he was a spokesman for Mark Hughes. But the truth is this: I’ve left it in a situation where I’ll not call. It’s really up to Stephen. If he wants to call me, fine.”

Ireland himself, or people in his camp, have occasionally made subtle hints that he would consider returning, without ever properly following through on these insinuations. There has also been a sense of bitterness in some interviews about the way he is perceived in his native country.

Things happened to me that made me look ridiculous. They became the main part of me and I have had to change that. Whenever I used to see my name in the paper it was: ‘Stephen Ireland, comma, grandmas, website, pink wheels, blah blah.’

“Now I just want it to be, ‘Stephen Ireland did something good on the field today,’ he said in a March 2009 interview.

The following November, he told Mark Ogden of the Daily Telegraph: “A lot of people say to my friends, ‘Why’s Stephen Ireland not playing for his country? If I ever see him, I’ll do this or that to him.’

But if I ever see them, they just bottle it. It’s all talk. I’ve had confrontations with people who have said ‘Oh, if I see him I’m going to tell him what I think’ and then I see them, and they’re like, ‘Oh mate, right decision, don’t go back and play for Ireland.’

“They’re always different to my face. My family have had problems too, but it’s nothing we can’t deal with.

“I’ve left my country now, and obviously left under the wrong terms, but it’s happened and, since then my life has gone really nicely.”

Source: We Love Man City FC/YouTube

Indeed, initially at least, the Republic of Ireland’s loss seemed to be Man City’s gain. The former Cobh Ramblers youngster enjoyed the best season of his career to date, in the campaign following his Irish exile, scoring nine times in 35 Premier League appearances. Aged 22, he was named City’s Player of the Season. He talked of wanting spend the rest of his career at the club. City, he believed, could challenge for the title — a claim that seemed much more audacious then than it would now.

And even in this joyous moment, Ireland took aim at the haters, saying: “Last summer I was reading fan web sites and it was clear some people didn’t want me at City. There were comments like ‘if Sunderland want him I will drive him there myself’ and that really hurt.

A year ago a lot of fans didn’t fancy me as a player — I knew that from what I saw and heard. There were a lot of negative comments from City supporters.”

Ultimately, however, the good times did not last. Halfway through the following season, Mark Hughes was replaced as manager by Roberto Mancini. Ireland was suddenly deemed surplus to requirements, leaving the club to join Aston Villa in part exchange for James Milner, and lamenting how their players had become “money obsessed” amid a clearly acrimonious exit.

Ireland fell out of favour in the Midlands soon too. His manager at the time, Gerard Houllier, quipped:

He needs to work harder. He played against Chelsea and did well, he played against Sunderland and it was not good enough to me, as simple as that. He needs to work harder. The skill is one thing but you need to compete.”

After going to Newcastle on loan, he was again embroiled in controversy when he was pictured posing shirtless in a nightclub with Leon Best. Unsurprisingly, the Magpies did not make the deal permanent, although a debilitating ankle injury that restricted his game time did not help matters.

Upon returning to Villa, he was given another chance, but he took little time to provoke the ire of manager Alex McLeish after being photographed with a shisha pipe. However, Ireland did begin to show some good form during this period and was voted the supporters’ player of the year at the end of the 2011-12 campaign, although that probably said more about the plight of the club with the player admitting he hadn’t exactly excelled. The following season, new manager Paul Lambert failed to take a shine to him and Ireland left the club at the end of the campaign, after making just 13 appearances that season.

“I’m just so grateful to the manager here at Stoke for giving me the opportunity to build up my career again,” Ireland said in 2013 after joining Stoke on loan. “I’ve absolutely got a point to prove and I’m dying to get back into the swing of things. This is a massive opportunity and I’m still only 27. It’s a vital year for me to be playing week in, week out.”

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Stoke City - St James' Park Ireland has seen his first-team opportunities limited since joining Stoke. Source: EMPICS Sport

After promising early signs, Ireland joined Mark Hughes’ side permanently the following January, amid hopes that his old boss could get the best out of him again.

“He’s someone I’ve worked with before and that will help Stephen because he enjoys working in a stable environment where he knows people,” Hughes said after Ireland penned a three-year deal with the club in 2014. “I think that gets the best out of him and we’ll reap the benefits of that and I think the next few years will be great for him.

He’s still a young man and we’re arguably getting him at a time in his career when he should be at the peak of his powers. I think it’s a great opportunity both for Stephen and the club.”

Yet since then, Ireland has largely flattered to deceive, though some bad injuries have complicated the situation. Invariably on the periphery of the Stoke squad, he remains out of action currently after suffering a horrific leg break in training last May.

Ireland’s contract at Stoke runs out this summer. By next season, he’ll be 31, so it’s hard to imagine the Potters offering him a new deal, while it seems unlikely that there’ll be a big queue for his signature from elsewhere given how sporadic his performances have been in recent seasons.

Should it prove to be the end of the road, it will be the sad culmination for one of the most talented, enigmatic and maddening figures in Irish football. Once a boy wonder with the football world at his feet, after all the controversy, bad fortune and negative press, it would be easy to understand Ireland becoming disillusioned with the game he once played so seamlessly and with such joy.

In five seasons at City, he made 138 Premier League appearances. In the eight campaigns since leaving the club, he has played 102 times.

In a 2009 interview, he likened himself to his footballing hero, Roy Keane: “I take football very seriously,” Ireland said.

I don’t think I’m having a good enough season. I should have scored more goals, delivered more assists. I am a big believer in looking in the mirror and saying, “Are you good enough? Did you do good enough today? Did you fight hard enough?”

Unfortunately, since that memorable goal in Croke Park 10 years ago, contrary to how he sees himself, Ireland has in many people’s minds become the antithesis of what Roy Keane represented. Whereas Keane’s hunger and desire made up for any deficiencies elsewhere, Ireland has seldom managed to persuade coaches that his work rate is consistently on a par with the phenomenal gifts he has always possessed.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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