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.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Morality emerges from the millions

The financial clout of Manchester City makes the coming months intriguing to say the least. As the season draws to a close the dreaded ‘S’ word has come to the fore: speculation. In particular, speculation with regard to City’s transfer activity. If I were a betting man, I’d bet my mortgage (if I had one to bet) that every transfer window for the next few years will be exactly the same.

We are at a very specific stage of City’s development, a very early stage, a stage where no-one – fans and players alike - knows the depth, longevity and intention of the owners’ reach. We are in the realm of the word, not the deed. We are dealing in the semantics of speculation.

The project
We are hearing a lot about the word ‘project’. Mark Hughes has used it from his first day in the job. Garry Cook has used it in explaining his (failed) attempt to bring a certain world-class player to the club last January. Recently, the camps of certain players across the world have been using the word too. In the words of his agent, Fabio Cannavaro, the Real Madrid and Italy centre-back “wants to aim for an important project as he nears the end of his career, one that I would call phenomenal.”

Reflecting on his own uncertain future, Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez mused: “It's not only Real Madrid and Inter who want me and I need to study the options now, not just from a money point of view, but also because I want to play for a team with a good project and in a country that is perfect for my family.”

The dangers of semantics
City fans and certain elements of the media may well have been too quick to link these uses of the word ‘project’, at risk of missing the real picture. There’s no doubt something big is going on at City, but we are not the only club in the world with big ambitions. The reality of our true shape is revealed by the fact that we cannot match the aspirations of the game’s big players.

Take Lionel Messi for starters. Back in March, City were linked with a £100m bid for Barcelona’s talisman. Let’s step into Argentinean’s mind for a minute. He’s at a great club with a rich tradition and a rich history. Alongside the likes of Samuel Eto’o, and Thierry Henry, he is playing the kind of football that most top players can only dream of. He has just had the privilege of playing a part in famously demolishing Real Madrid 6-2 at the Bernabeu. That’s a result that will go down in the history of the game. So why then, would he want to move to a club like Manchester City?

The same goes for other big names. Although Cannavaro dropped the word ‘project’ into his conversations with the media, he has turned down City because he wants to be considered for the Italy World Cup squad next summer, and to be a contender for a place, he needs to play at the highest level. French midfielder Franck Ribery, currently at Bayern Munich, has also stated that his decision to move to another club in the summer will be based upon whether that club is playing Champions League football next season.

Money talks, but only up to a point
For me it remains unclear whether the millions of City’s Sheikh, repugnant though they are to many in the game, will bring success to Manchester City. Of course, they will certainly make success more likely. It sounds rather dense and obvious, but in order to have success you have to be able to succeed. And that is a lot harder than it sounds. For the top, top players to come, City will have to prove their ability to succeed, because for the top, top players, no amount of money is worth more than playing at the height of the game against the best in the game.

And this leads to a refreshing conclusion for the footballing neutral. The fact that the top, top players aren’t yet coming to City proves that money isn’t the ultimate objective. For the Messi’s, Kaka’s, Cannavaro's and Ribery’s of this world, the romance of the game is still intact.