Former England striker Emile Heskey has opened up about his time working with Stephen Ireland at Aston Villa outlining that the ex-Irish international was one of the most talented players he trained with.
Ireland spent three seasons at Villa following his departure from Manchester City in 2010 and despite impressing in spells, only made 57 appearances at the club, thanks to injuries and falling out of favour with certain managers.
In an all-encompassing interview with The Athletic on Tuesday, Ireland spoke on a host of different topics including his career at City, his international exit and his brief time at Aston Villa.
The 33-year-old outlined how he had been signed by Martin O’Neill but spent the majority of his time working under the “horrendous” Gerard Houllier after the former Ireland manager’s exit.
Heskey was a player who spent time with Ireland during his spell at Villa and the now-retired striker still frequently keeps in touch with him.
Speaking to Pundit Arena at the launch of Eir Sport’s new season, Heskey was quick to praise Ireland outlining that the talented midfielder was a “step or two ahead” of his teammates in training and that his ability made him question why the former Manchester City man was at the club in the first place.
“He’s a great player. The thing is, he came to Aston Villa and we had a great squad. But it was a difficult time because Martin O’Neill left [the day] Stephen had signed.
“It was a tough time for him anyway, but to come in there and be one of the best players in training, honestly, I’m looking at him thinking ‘Why are you here?’ He was a step or two ahead of everyone. I don’t know why he never played more.
“He must have been sitting there frustrated knowing that he was probably better than most of the other players there, but he wasn’t given the opportunity to show that.
“But yeah, one of the best trainers I’ve ever seen. I swear, if you come and watch him train, you can understand what I mean. You’d be wondering why he isn’t on the pitch and why he isn’t getting his chance.”
“I don’t know if he’d been into the managers office to give him what for, but I just didn’t understand why Stephen didn’t play as much as he did.”
That confrontational side of his personality is something Ireland touched upon in The Athletic’s interview outlining that managers don’t like him due to his fondness for questioning them over the years.
The knocking on the boss’ door that Heskey mentioned, appeared to be a common occurrence.
“You have to ask questions of them. You’ve got to make them manage, not come in every day and have their breakfast and watch training and go home. They’re managers, they’re employed to do a job, so make them manage. And that’s what I used to do. They didn’t like that I put them on their toes.
“If I didn’t care I wouldn’t come and ask. Why would I sit there and pick up my wage and not ask why I’m not in the team?”
“People think I’m hard (to work with), but I am a manager’s dream, believe it or not. I’m not deluded. I would sit here and say if I was a dickhead because I’ve no other club, what have I got to lose right now?”
Heskey, however, was keen to stress that he never saw that side of Ireland during his time at the club and from training with him, he couldn’t understand how the midfielder couldn’t break into the team.
“I didn’t see that [confrontational side] in him. You see players mouthing off and getting in trouble and you can understand why they’re not playing, but I never saw that with Stephen.
“It wasn’t that he was mouthing off to the manager and telling him what for – I don’t know if he did that behind closed doors – but in front of everyone, he was a respectful man. I don’t understand why he didn’t go any further at Villa.
“It was a strange one for me. All I saw was a lad training hard. Fitness-wise he was up there, and ability-wise he was even better. It was weird.”
It’s clear that Heskey has a distinct fondness for Ireland both as a player and as a person. The pair live in the same area and even play five-a-side, along with their sons, on occasion.
The former England striker has a lot of time for Ireland and hopes the 33-year-old can find a club having left Stoke City in 2017.
Ireland certainly still has the talent to operate at a solid level in English football and Heskey concluded by reaffirming his stance that the former Manchester City man is a “good lad” on a one-to-one basis.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be given the opportunity to come back. You’ve seen players come back at 30-odd. We took Gary McAllister at Liverpool when he was 36 and he played an integral part in us winning the treble. So, why not?”
“He’s a good lad. He’s funny. He’s got some crazy friends from Cork — they’re just nuts. But he’s a good lad, keeps himself to himself. He’s very family-orientated and doesn’t like to be dragged away from his family at all.”
Wes Brown, Emile Heskey, Jack Byrne and Shane Supple were at the Sport Ireland Campus today to help launch a new season of action on the eir sport pack. eir sport viewers can watch every game in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League plus UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers on Virgin Media Sport, which is now part of the eir sport pack, as well as live FA Cup games, SSE Airtricity League games & the Republic of Ireland’s U21 Home Qualifiers.