By Kevin Koczwara
Trouble and controversy follow Stephen Ireland. The Aston Villa midfielder stirred more controversy after his girlfriend posted a picture on twitter of him lounging, smoking and drinking shirtless on Christmas day. The once promising midfielder no longer seems to find himself in the headlines for the right reasons. Instead of making headlines with his play on the field, he makes the back pages for his inconsistency and poor choices.
On May 20, 2009, Ireland was named Manchester City’s Senior Player of the year. He played 50 games for City that season, scoring 13 goals. He was the engine in the midfield. He looked the kind of player the new owners of City could build their team around. Ireland played with the kind of passion, drive and skill only a handful of players possess.
Then Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes at the helm of City and Ireland’s career and form dipped. He couldn’t find his way onto the field for the former Inter Milan manager, who expected more defensive quality from the marauding midfielder. Then the switch for James Milner happened.
All the wheels fell off the truck for Ireland when he arrived at Villa Park at the beginning of the 2010-11 Premier League season. After demanding City pay him off with a nice check, Ireland finally agreed to move. In his first appearance for Villa, the team lost 6-0 to Newcastle. It was his 24th birthday and he played the full 90 minutes, but he didn’t look the same player.
Ireland’s spark disappeared. His dynamism and drive through the midfield vanished. He lost control of the ball and couldn’t pass on the break like he did for City. Now, he was in a new system with a team in flux — Martin O’Neill resigned from his position as manager after the Milner deal — but that was no excuse for a player of Ireland’s quality. This was his time to show City what it lost. Instead, he fluttered out.
Ireland’s performances and the way he took to moving from City showed his lack of desire and dedication. He looked a player shocked and awed — an immature pouting brat.
Maybe the switch from the club he worked so hard to grow with — he was a youth product of the academy — destroyed what was left of Ireland’s soul. But there were telling signs before the move that Ireland was amiss and not a true professional.
In 2007, while on international duty with Ireland, Stephen received a call from his girlfriend in Manchester. She had a miscarriage and was distraught. Ireland didn’t know what to do. He was confused. He had a game to play against Slovakia. He saw his manager, Steve Staunton, and told him something happened and he had to leave. Except, he didn’t tell the truth. Ireland lied and said his grandmother died. Instead of telling the truth, Ireland backed out, even though the truth would was just as acceptable a reason to go home. He continued the lie after reporters found him out. He kept going with it, pushing it to another grandmother. That’s immaturity at its best: fearing the truth and the repercussions, not accepting your fate. There was no reason to tell the first lie or the ones after, but Ireland did.
Ireland later admitted to his wrongdoings and told reporters the whole story.
“I passed the manager Steve Staunton in the corridor and he said: ‘Is everything all right?’,” Ireland said. “That was the exact moment it all went wrong. 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: ‘OK’.
“After I played in the game I took a private jet back to Manchester. Before I left I asked that the press be told it was a family matter, no more. By the time I got off the plane everybody knew — or thought — that my grandmother was dead. The story had leaked. It went from strength to strength and I was right in the middle of it. It was a nightmare.
“All of a sudden I found myself in a big hole and I couldn’t get out of it. There were so many stories out there and when I got to the end of the season I just realised that I had to somehow draw a line under it all.”
[From Green Scene]
The national team did its best by its player. Ireland repayed the trust with a lie, embroiling the national team in unwanted and unwarranted press. He scored in the game against Slovakia, a qualifier for the 2008 Euros, but after flying home he missed the next match against the Czechs. Ireland lost to the Czech Republic and didn’t qualify for the 2008 Euros. If Stephen had been on the team, with his form at the time, things might have been different. And the fans let him know that.
The game against Slovakia was the last he would play for Ireland.
Now, with Ireland making the 2012 Euros, Stephen will have to watch from the stands, a bar stool, or a couch. He will not be called into the side, no matter how much creativity it needs. He turned his back on the country and the national team, instead forging forward with his club career, which in 2009 was at its height. It would have been a fitting end for Stephen to come out of international duty exile during the qualifying campaign — something the Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni and Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier pushed for — and helped his nation qualify. He could have re-built himself and his career. He didn’t.
Instead, Ireland was embroiled in more off the field issues. In March of 2011, while Ireland was on loan at Newcastle — Aston Villa thought he needed new surroundings — he was out with teammate Leon Best at a bar the night before Newcastle played Stoke. The two had their pictures taken with their shirts off. This wouldn’t have been too big of a deal if Ireland and Best were in the side the next day or playing to their potential, but that wasn’t the case. Neither player was included in the game day roster, and neither was playing the way fans expected. It was silly, but it was, again, immature.
Now, Ireland is at it again. He’s putting himself in an unwanted spotlight. It’s sad to see such a promising player drop so far so quickly. The signs of immaturity were there, but they were hidden by the way he played in the open field and they way he worked from box-to-box. Someday, City will remember what he did for the team in those years. And someday, everyone else will look back at how much time and talent was wasted.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.