One of the most gifted Cork soccer players ever, Stephen Ireland could have been a superstar

One of the most gifted Cork soccer players ever, Stephen Ireland could have been a superstar
Manchester City's Stephen Ireland celebrates scoring a late winning goal in 2007. Picture: Clint Hughes/PA Wire.

IN Wayne Rooney’s column in The Sunday Times a few weeks back there were several interesting insights.

The caricature of Rooney has long passed now — media appearances and interviews have revealed a far more thoughtful and open character than previous expectations — and there are nearly always a few nuggets to latch onto.

Here he wrote about how Man United dealt with Andrea Pirlo of AC Milan in a Champions League game, about Park Ji-Sung in and the general concept of players being aware of their role as part of a team, about working in training on defensive and attacking patterns and, one particular standout, when Rooney was talking about the sort of players that caused difficulty for planning, players that move between the lines and needed more than one player to deal with them.

He namechecked Frank Lampard, explained how Alex Ferguson would always call that more than a one-player job and then he brought up Stephen Ireland as another example of someone Ferguson would have mentioned in the same way.

Ireland attended the Bobby Charlton Skills Finals at Old Trafford as a youngster. 
Ireland attended the Bobby Charlton Skills Finals at Old Trafford as a youngster. 

That makes sense of course.

Ireland managed to be both the most talented Irish soccer player of a generation and one of the first names you think of when the phrase lost talent is brought up, and still it was a reminder of where he was at one stage in the game, a player that could influence games so much at the highest level that he was on Alex Ferguson’s list of players to watch.

It’s jarring to look at Ireland’s career in a number of ways now.

Firstly, he’s still only 33 and it’s two years now since he played a game, coming on for Stoke away at Swansea.

Stoke City's Stephen Ireland celebrates his second goal during the FA Cup third round match at the Britannia Stadium.
Stoke City's Stephen Ireland celebrates his second goal during the FA Cup third round match at the Britannia Stadium.

There’s this underlying sense that he could have/ should have done so much more, even as we recognise that getting to that level in any form is worth so much, that playing nearly 250 times in the Premier League isn’t exactly a failure by any measure.

In the last week or two alone we’ve listened to Damien Delaney talk to Tomás Ó Sé, read interviews with Thomas Butler and Derek Geary (on the42.ie) and Conor Hourihane, all Irish players who played Premier League at varying times and with varying success and the main takeaway was how much has to go right for the process to come together and how easily it can all fall away.

The granny stuff has never been the most intriguing aspect to the whole Stephen Ireland story, not even close.

Anyone who read his interview in The Atlantic last September would wonder how he managed to play at all at the time, that the most incredible thing is how he kept it together for so long.

Going to games that we were all watching on Sky at the time, big Manchester derbies, where Ireland was bringing his kids into the club with him for games and single-parenting at home afterwards.

And all that was when he was in his career form by the way, so imagine if he’d been more focused and given more freedom to play.

It was afterwards it fell apart, the usual mix of wrong managers at the wrong time and then wrong injuries, more bad timing than bad attitude (anyone we’ve heard mention him has only said good things about his training and mentality) and never quite getting the trust and confidence that allowed him to flow as a player again. The reason it all seems such a terrible waste is simply because he was so very good for a while, like proper, sequences of Match of the Day highlighting his performances sort of good.

In that Man City side that was emerging first at the back end of the noughties it was the Brazilians like Robinho who Ireland was drawn to, trying to match the latest tricks and skills at training.

Watch the games back now and you can laugh at what seemed normal for Ireland then.

Scoring goals against Arsenal, Liverpool (twice), Everton, Chelsea - good goals too, ones where you could see what Alex Ferguson meant, Ireland running beyond midfield and defence, arriving into danger areas all on his own, opening up games completely with his awareness of spaces and ability to finish.

Ireland with Michael O'Driscoll, from AIB, won the U13 CSL Player of the Year with Cobh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ireland with Michael O'Driscoll, from AIB, won the U13 CSL Player of the Year with Cobh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

He had this technical ability to take ball in tight areas and to conjure up difficult strikes from balls that were not possible for other players.

Look for a particularly tricky volley that won a game against Reading, where he hit a dropping ball over his shoulder into the roof of the net.

Watch the goal against Arsenal, ghosting into the box past the defence and then firing past Almunia on the turn.

Or the one against Liverpool at home, blasting the ball into the net on the run, another technically not-so-easy strike that a lot of players wouldn’t have taken on — Ireland knocked it in routinely.

Manchester City's Stephen Ireland and Everton's Phil Neville battle for the ball. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA.
Manchester City's Stephen Ireland and Everton's Phil Neville battle for the ball. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA.

A lovely, lovely goal at Hull, cushioning a pass up slightly and then stroking a shot around and into the corner. I remember being at a game against Wales in Croke Park around this time and just circling Ireland’s name as the only player on the field with something different about him, who might just have the creativity to unlock what was a dreary evening — Ireland scored the only goal.

People forget he scored a cracker in Slovakia but on that weekend it all started to go wrong in a green jersey.

He won Man City’s Player of the Season in 2008/09 in a team that included Vincent Kompany, Micah Richard, Nigel De Jong, scored nine Premier League goals. He repeated that player of the season trick at Villa even though he only played for half a season.

We’d had goalscorers and defenders and leaders and even wingers, but Ireland was different no doubt, a gifted creative type who could take a pass, give a pass, make a goal, score a goal, who could do almost anything.

At the time we wondered what might have been if Ireland had developed in a different country perhaps (Spain or Portugal), but actually it might have been better if he was 10 years later.

Ireland rounds the Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score for the first goal at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ireland rounds the Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score for the first goal at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Emile Heskey told previously of Ireland being the best in training at Villa, how he was too good for the players there actually.

In this time of nostalgia and favourite games there’s always the biggest what-ifs as well and every now and then we get a reminder of how good Stephen Ireland was for a spell and how frustrating it was that he didn’t go on to be even better.

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