Just over a decade ago on the night of September 8, 2007, Marek Cech effectively ended Ireland’s hopes of Euro 2008 qualification in Bratislava. On the same night, a very promising international career also came to a premature end.
In the days between Ireland’s tie with Slovakia and the Czech Republic four days later, ‘Granny Gate’ was in full swing. In short, a distressed Stephen Ireland had claimed one of his grandmothers had sadly passed away only to announce that he had named the wrong one publicly. It later emerged that this was a decoy to distract from fact that his girlfriend Jessica had sadly miscarried the couple’s baby.
From that moment on, Ireland entered an apparent self-inflicted exile from the Irish national team. It came at a time when the Corkman was one of the few shining lights in a disjointed Irish side that under Steve Staunton lacked leadership and structure. Ireland had four goals in qualifying and was his country’s standout performer despite being an international rookie.
Following his first team debut for Manchester City in 2005, Ireland was fast-tracked to the senior Irish set-up after showing early promise. He had a solitary cap at under-21 level after an argument with Brian Kerr at under-18 level tainted his reputation in green. However, Staunton saw past this and made him a regular early on in his reign, playing the youngster in central midfield and on the right wing. It seemed Staunton had uncovered a real gem.
Unfortunately, ‘Granny Gate’ proved otherwise and even after Staunton’s dismissal Ireland remained absent. The following season, Ireland did what not many Irish players have done in recent times and took steps to improve his physique and technical game during pre-season. A more athletic Ireland emerged in 2008 with a shaved head and extra swagger.
Ireland was one of the Premier League’s standout players that term, which coincided with the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni. Although the Italian met Ireland, the player claimed that ‘Trap’ had been arrogant towards him. Ireland was pushed even further away despite being open to the meeting and went on to be nominated for the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year gong a few months later.
Just last month, it emerged, via the Irish Independent, that Ireland had been more than open to returning to the Ireland fold under Martin O’Neill and has been available since. However, he has been overlooked. In reality, Ireland’s last milestone of note was his Fans’ Player of the Year award of Aston Villa in 2012 but is one of the few (seemingly) available players to Ireland who has always plied their trade in the Premier League.
A quick glance through forums, articles and comments on social media regarding Ireland are mostly negative. Many wonder why he is still being talked about. Some call him a traitor, overrated, a bit alternative. Ireland himself has not helped the cause with some eccentric off-the-field antics, some controversial comments and, more importantly, a serious lack of form in the last several seasons. However, people rarely consider the other side of the story.
‘Granny Gate’ was a PR disaster for the FAI but also Ireland as a player. What people rarely consider is his age at the time. Many 21-year old’s make poor decisions, bad mistakes and can lack basic moral instincts. Some have had ‘Granny Gates’ of their own in an attempt to get out of work. Very few, however, have the pressure of the national media on their back at a vulnerable time. Questions are always asked of Ireland’s judgement but nobody tends to ask where was his manager Steve Staunton in all of this? Where was his captain Robbie Keane?
Ireland suffered personally and ultimately paid for it with his international career but others could have intervened. Many forget that he publicly apologised just a few days later, a pretty brave act from a 21-year-old who had just lost a child and admirably owned up to a big mistake.
Ireland ultimately turned down numerous opportunities to make a comeback for his country. Although he always reiterated he maintained a good relationship with most the Irish players after ‘Granny Gate’, he was still outspoken about the set-up of the squad and critical of Trapattoni. Given his history with backroom bust-ups within the Irish set-up, this did not raise the midfielder’s stock.
It seemed at this stage a return for Ireland would disrupt any progression the side had made following the fallout of the Staunton era, which after all was quite significant. Ireland seemed disinterested and if he really wanted to pull on the green again, he would have put the politics and sensitivities behind him and got back to work for his country. On the flip side, the likes of Steven Reid, Dean Kiely,Kevin Foley and Darron Gibson to name a few were living proof that Trapattoni did in fact push players away.
Moving to the more recent past, Ireland’s major downfall has been his form. If claims about his availability to O’Neill turn out to be true, his poor performances and injuries over the last few seasons would not have done his international chances much good in any case. O’Neill is a man of loyalty and trust and it seems Ireland could have been a man he viewed as a threat to the harmony of both the team and indeed the fans.
Despite people’s personal opinions of Ireland, there is no doubt he is one of the most talented players to emerge from Ireland in the last decade. He is a player that seemed to have peaked early on in his career but he will at least until January 2018 have managed to spend the entirety of his playing career in England’s top flight, which is testament to his ability.
Should Ireland have returned under Trapattoni, the Italian’s system could have been built around the creative midfielder who was one of the star players in the Premier League at the time. Instead, the players were built around the system and continued to be for the following five years. This trend has somewhat continued, although not to the same severity under O’Neill.
Ireland no doubt would have added to what his country had and this could have paved the way for technically gifted talents like Andy Reid, Steven Reid or Darron Gibson to shape what instead became a rigid and functional side that was eventually found out very easily. It is impossible to say for sure, but Ireland could have potentially shaped a very different style of football for the guts of a decade.
International football could have been what Ireland needed to take his career to the next level. Despite a couple of excellent performances at Manchester City, the Corkonian plummeted, first falling out of favour with the Citizens and then flopping at Aston Villa. International experience could have developed an extra dimension and maturity to his game but he never afforded himself, or was never afforded, the chance.
However, his career has never reached the potential heights it could have. With his contract with Stoke up in January it is hard to know what is next for Ireland. Less talented players have gone on to star for the Boys in Green, with some veterans of two major international tournaments. This could have been the case for Ireland himself, but it seems he was more than happy to watch from home.
He will most likely go down as a player who did not fulfil his potential, both internationally and in the Premier League, but is certainly an interesting character who has provided a long-term soap opera that seems to have finally been put to bed.
One decade on, the ‘could haves’ around Ireland still exist and although it may be hard to stomach, a rapid return to international football could have made him a hero rather than a villain in some people’s eyes.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Aren