It doesn’t quite make us Arsene Wenger but Jumpthefence liked the look of Stephen Ireland from the beginning. We remember a wonderful assist at Fulham way back in his early days that suggested a higher path to follow and there were glimpses of brilliance, if not quite sustained excellence, over the last few seasons. The turn on Nemanja Vidic at Old Trafford and the goal assist that followed in December 06. Cracking goals against Wigan and Sunderland. Most of all it was that technique and composure on the ball. Ireland, ironically enough, didn’t play like an Irish player at all; his skill set spoke more of a European style, someone who’d grown up with a ball at his feet and who mastered the basics pretty early on in his career. In fact, over a year ago we called him the most technically gifted Irish footballer of a generation – that we’ve seen even - and we’re more convinced of it now.
Watch Ireland play and he’ll very rarely lose a ball with a poor first touch, or give a silly hopeful pass when a simple one is on – he’s learnt that every ball doesn’t have to be a killer one as well this season. He’s damn cool in goal situations, as he’s shown for Ireland with those extremely calm finishes against Wales and Slovakia especially. Weaknesses have been worked on. This time last season there would have been question marks over fitness, staying power and physical presence in a midfield position. Ireland slaved all summer to get his conditioning right and came back a stronger, fresher footballer. John Giles’s valid criticism in the past was a reticence (or inability) to impose himself on a game, to demand the ball and make things happen. Anyone who’s seen Ireland play for Man City this season – against Arsenal especially – knows that’s been knocked on the head now too. 20 league games with 7 goals and 6 assists are the bare stats but Ireland’s been even better than that would suggest.
All of which makes the Ireland story run and makes it so depressing. The deal was that he’d call when he’s ready to come back and it’s plain stirring to say Trapattoni should have named him in a squad in the hope he might show up. The management have done all they can. Ireland, for his part, has made it reasonably clear that he’s happy enough away from it all right now. That’s his decision, for better or worse. I’d be with Vincent Hogan in that it’s probably best to draw a line underneath it all now and move on without him. The hype and whisperings and loaded questions that accompany every squad announcement don’t help anyone.
Why’s Ireland not for turning? Well I’d guess at a few different reasons. I’m imagining he sees the press interest when he isn’t even here and baulks at the thought of running that gauntlet and all the probing that’d accompany a comeback. I’d suggest Ireland’s a sensitive enough sort that doesn’t really fancy stepping back into a dressing-room to be met by a mixture of bitterness, slagging, bitching and lack of friendliness.
About a year back Jumpthefence spoke to a guy who covers Man City for Manchester Evening News who described Ireland as a quiet lad who loved to just train and play football and a guy who was hugely popular with teammates and liked within the club itself. Ireland feels comfortable in his environment at Eastlands, is playing superbly and the thought of stepping out of that comfort zone by coming to Dublin doesn’t seem worth the risk. I’m not arguing it’s the right choice, and I’d think he’ll either regret it or change his mind sometime in the future, but I can see the reasoning.
From an Irish point of view, it’s terribly disappointing not to have our most in-form player available but heaping abuse and derision on Stevie Ireland isn’t the way to go here. Time to move on without him if that indeed is his wish.