Where did it all go wrong for Stephen Ireland?
With six players in for Villa already by early July, Paul Lambert’s primary focus on the transfer front in the next few weeks will be ensuring the players who do not fit into his plans for the coming season are moved on.
One of these seems certain to be Stephen Ireland, who has failed to impress in any of his three seasons at Villa Park since signing in August 2010.
The Irish ‘playmaker’ – although for most of his Villa career he hasn’t so much made the play as let it pass him by – admittedly did not arrive in the easiest of circumstances; the leverage in a part-exchange which saw Villa’s much-loved Player of the Season, James Milner, head the other way, whilst the club were still technically managerless and being steered by reserve team manager Kevin MacDonald.
Ireland had his share of off-field controversies before arriving at Villa, such as lying about his grandmother’s death to avoid international duty and his subsequent self-enforced international exile, but upon joining Villa he proclaimed that he wanted to get back to playing at the top of his game.
“I want to work hard for my team-mates,” Ireland said. “I’ve kind of forgotten the feeling of what it is like to come off after a game feeling tired, winning or losing. I’m not used to sitting out for so long.”
Well he’d have to get used to it, unfortunately. As for wanting to work hard for his teammates? By October, he had been dropped for his poor work-rate, and if there is one term that comes to mind when thinking of Ireland’s stint at the club, it’s not ‘effort’, and in this sense he was the polar opposite of Milner, who he was brought in to attempt to replace.
In Ireland’s first home game for the club, a 1-0 win over Everton, there was a moment in the second half which showed a glimpse of the player Villa were hoping they’d acquired. Ireland picked the ball up on the edge of the centre circle, drove at the defence and curled a low shot inches wide of the post from the edge of the area.
Although there were other, all too brief, moments of promise – the goal and assist in the magnificent win at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve 2011 obviously stands out, although even for large parts of that game he was anonymous – Ireland’s lasting memory at Villa will be of a player who possessed the technique to set games alight, as he did in his superb Player of the Season year at Manchester City in 2008-09, but consistently failed to deliver. Or possibly of him and his shisha pipe.
His announcement as Villa’s Supporters’ Player of the Year in 2011-12 was, frankly, farcical considering that he made only 26 appearances in all competitions and scored only once, and says far more about the shocking quality of Villa’s season than it does about any improvements Ireland made at the club.
Some may argue that Ireland was never given a fair crack of the whip at Villa, but he made at least a dozen appearances in all competitions in all three seasons at the club without once impressing. Yes he found himself starved of runs of games to get into any sort of form, but this was because he so often drifted through matches without making any sort of impact.
He was given chances under Paul Lambert to resurrect his Villa career too – the man-of-the-match, double-assist performance in the 3-0 League Cup win over Tranmere in August 2012 meant he was given a chance in each of Villa’s next three games, but he was dropped after failing to impress in any of them; and his final chance was handed to him in the second leg of the disastrous League Cup semi-final against Bradford.
As a result of his poor performances and high wages, Ireland may well be one of the players that Paul Lambert finds it hardest to pique any interest in from other clubs. Interest from Middlesbrough was recently rumoured – on their wage bill be it – and Ireland may well have to face up to the fact that Championship football might have to be his next port of call having not been a regular in his club’s first team in any of the last four seasons since his outstanding season in Mark Hughes’ Manchester City side of 2008-09.
Good luck to him wherever he goes, but he won’t be sticking around in Villa fans memories for too long after this summer should Lambert find success in moving him out of the club.
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