There was a time when Stephen Ireland was being lauded as one of the shining lights of the Premier League, he was looking like one of the best attacking midfielders in the country and comparisons were being made between him and some of the biggest names in English football, as we are all aware however it wasn’t to last.
As a Manchester City fan, I was more shocked than anyone when out of nowhere the former Irish international began to look like someone who could actually play football at a reasonably high level. He first broke into the first team at Eastlands during the 05/06 campaign, he drifted in and out of the squad for a few years and to be honest never particularly impressed me personally, I assumed he would have stuck around until 2009 when his contract would expire and he would inevitably drift down to the Championship where he might have a bit more success, but then something miraculous happened.
Mark Hughes decided to use Ireland behind a solitary striker during the 08-09 season and he suddenly began to show why he was so highly talked about behind the scenes, he was superb that year and was a shining light in a new wealthy City team that was trying to come to terms with its new lease of life. He finished the season with 13 goals and 9 assists, and a nomination for young player of the year, an award he was pipped to by Ashley Young.
He excelled in the hole and some of his link up play with Robinho (yes he was good for us that season!) was sensational, it appeared that he would be a mainstay for years to come. Sadly the wheels came off somewhat, Carlos Tevez arrived the following Summer as did Emmanuel Adebayor and Ireland was restricted to a deeper role or a position on the right of midfield and things just weren’t the same. His work rate dropped and he showed no desire to adapt to a new position, he appeared inflexible and seemed to be only effective in one area of the field, something that isn’t overly useful in the modern game. That brilliant season seemed a flash in the pan.
When he made the move to Villa Park at the start of last season, it seemed to be a positive step, a fresh lease of life for the 24 year old, things didn’t exactly work out how they were supposed too however. His debut came with a 6-0 demolition at the hands of Newcastle where Ireland found himself playing in the middle of the park, almost as a box to box midfield player, something he had appeared unwilling to do at City. Things didn’t really improve, and he was eventually dropped from the first team entirely by then manager Gerard Houllier who stated that the Irishman had to work harder on and off the field.
In January he was moved to Newcastle and there was talk of a permanent move come the end of the season, but after only 2 appearances he picked up an ankle injury and was side lined for the rest of the term. That brings us to the present, I have witnessed first hand the brilliant and the terrible of Ireland. There is no doubt in my mind that even without his slightly ‘odd’ behaviour off the field, he is a strange character. He is now at the stage of his career where he should be close to entering his prime, but that just isn’t the case. He knows how to play the role behind the striker superbly and if he can regain confidence he can excel in that position, but anywhere else on the field and he doesn’t look interested.
A new manager for Villa could mean a new start and looking at their current squad there is the potential for him to resurrect his career and potentially fullfil his potential. With the players available a 4-2-3-1 formation could easily be adopted, with Albrighton right, Downing left and Ireland behind Darren Bent. It is a system that would really suit the player and I think it would also suit Villa. New manager Alex McLeish has a penchant for playing one up front, so I can see it being implemented and it would certainly get the best out of Ireland.
Has he burnt his bridges however? I wonder if the Villa Park faithful are willing to give him another chance, I would understand if they didn’t, but I still feel there is potential in him. Many have written him off as a one season wonder, and there is no question about it, he is one of the most inflexible players in the Premier League. This is his last chance however, if he doesn’t achieve something this season, it could be the end for Stephen ‘Superman’ Ireland…
Read more of Joe’s articles at This is Futbol