Door still ajar for Stephen Ireland’s return

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles

The Irish national team will be making the long journey to Cyrpus this weekend looking for a crucial three points in a must win game for the men in green.

Unfortunately for manager Giovanni Trapattoni, he will be travelling without the best midfielder the country has seen since Roy Keane. Stephen Ireland will be doing combat on Saturday – just not against the Cypriots.

The inventive midfielder is one of the only survivors of the pre-Abu Dhabi era at Manchester City. A remarkable year has seen Ireland develop from a fringe player into a key member of a squad which is earning a reputation for scintillating football.

A year ago Ireland was on the verge of a move to Sunderland. Disillusioned at City, the 23-year-old felt unwanted. Despite initially favouring Dickson Etuhu and Gelson Fernandes in midfield, Mark Hughes insisted on keeping Ireland.

It was an injection of confidence that would inspire him to become one of the foremost attacking midfielders in the Premier League. Ireland provided plenty of guile in the Manchester City midfield.

The influx of superstars like Brazilian sensation Robinho did not deter the Irish international. It only spurred him on.

How Stephen Ireland wasn’t crowned ‘PFA Young Player of the Year’ remains a mystery. A tally of nine goals and nine assists meant that only Frank Lampard was more productive from midfield in the Premier League 2008-09 campaign.

Ireland was City’s main juggernaut in midfield. Last season saw him showcase his vast array of talents: deft chips, disguised passes and a tenacious work rate.

While sustaining his inspired performances at club level the nadir of Ireland’s international career came almost two years ago. He hasn’t played since September 2007.

The ‘Granny’ episode sparked the player’s exile from international football. He lied about the death of his grandmother in order to be excused from representing his country.

When the media discovered this was a fib, Ireland proceeded to write to his paternal grandmother. The media, who were now digging more furiously than a terrier looking for a bone, soon uprooted the truth.

The truth was his girlfriend suffered a miscarriage. The irony is that in a country famous for its catholic religion and compassion for those in suffering, the then 21-year old felt unable to confide with the FAI who would surely have understood.

The staff at the City of Manchester Stadium have been lavish in their praise of the attacking midfielder. The maturity the player now possesses makes him unrecognisable to the confused youth of two years ago.

Maybe the transformation lies in his secret vice: kickboxing. Indeed while his teammate Shay Given will be looking to keep out Cyprus in Nicosia, Ireland will be indulging in some martial arts.

Ireland points to this extracurricular activity as the catalyst to his remarkable form in the sky blue of City.

A healthy body means a healthy mind.

The midfielder has stressed the benefits of his hobby. When opponents are tiring with 15 minutes left to play, Ireland has energy in abundance and exploits the aching muscles of defenders to devastating effect, as seen against Blackburn Rovers.

For now, Trapattoni will have to preserve with his midfield duo of Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews which is frankly devoid of any creativity. The duo possess a battling spirit and are willing to grind down opposition but lack individual brilliance.

The door has been left ajar for Ireland to make a return. The Italian won’t be seen to be desperate. It is for Ireland to decide when he is ready.

The return of the prodigal son would be a welcome boost for the men in green. But for now martial arts remains Ireland’s mantra.

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