Sunday, 24 May 2009


If there’s a revelation to be had from this tumultuous campaign, then it has to take the form of Stephen Ireland.

It has been a ground-breaking season for the Irishman. In April he was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award (eventually losing out to Aston Villa’s Ashley Young). This week he was named City’s own player of the year, ending Richard Dunne’s three year dominance.

Dark days
But things have not always been so rosy. In 2007, Ireland pulled out of the Republic of Ireland squad to face the Czech Republic citing the death of a grandparent. This later emerged as a lie, with the real reason for withdrawal being that Ireland’s girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage. This episode did him no favours, and after a round of apologies to his family, the Republic of Ireland set up, and Manchester City, Ireland has not played for his country since. Despite overtures from Giovanni Trapattoni and Liam Brady, Ireland has appeared to place himself in self-imposed exile.

Not long after this fiasco, Ireland came close to disciplinary action when – after scoring the winner in a 1-0 win over Sunderland – his dropped his shorts to reveal underpants bearing the Superman logo.

At the beginning of this season it appeared the midfielder was on his way out of the club to join Roy Keane’s Sunderland. Looking back, it was a time of great uncertainty at the club. Hughes had just come in and then cuddly businessman-turned super villain Dr Thaksin Shinawatra was still in ownership. We were in financial straits and transfer rumours were flying about left, right and centre. The story at the time was that Thaksin was about to sell Stephen Ireland to Sunderland under the nose of Hughes in order to recoup some of the money we had paid for Jo and Tal Ben Haim. Half an hour before the club’s first home friendly of the new season against A.C. Milan, Ireland was supposedly shopping in Manchester whilst Hughes had included him in the squad. The rumour was that Joe Hart got on the phone to Ireland to tell him of his inclusion in the squad and that Hughes wanted him over at Eastlands asap.

Whatever the real story of what happened that day, since then Ireland’s Manchester City career has gone from strength to strength. He has bulked up and has become battle-hardened, no longer the waif-like youngster of a couple of seasons ago. He has also done a lot of growing up mentally. His Superman pants days well and truly behind him, the midfielder now sounds like someone who is serious about his game. To hear him talk, you know that he wants to be the best he can be. He is a shining example of professionalism to the rest of the squad.

Talent and consistency
Undercutting all of these trials and tribulations has been Ireland’s raw talent. He has the vision for that incisive, defence-splitting pass, the anticipation to make that darting run, the technique to finish off difficult goal-scoring opportunities and the instinct to be there at the right time for that vital tap in that wins you the game. Of course, these things have not emerged overnight. What has changed this season is the midfield dynamo’s mental toughness and from that foundation he has found that vital ingredient that eludes so many of his peers - consistency. When talent is mixed with consistency, sooner or later good things will come.

Stephen Ireland fully deserves his City player of the year award, and perhaps more importantly for him, a new contract that will see his wages treble to approximately £80,000. On the pitch, the real measure of how far Ireland has come has been his link-up play with Robinho. Apart from his fellow countryman Elano, there is no other player in the squad that better understands the footballing mind of City’s £32.5m man.

The task for City’s midfield starlet is now to keep this inspirational form going. There will undoubtedly be some bigger names arriving at the club in years to come, and players may well be looking over their shoulders. But Ireland will remain living proof of a home grown talent that tried, competed against the best the club could bring in, and then raised his game.

Ten more Stephen Ireland’s certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

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