The story of Stephen Ireland is the story of the MCFC Academy. He emerged in the early days of the Stuart Pearce era, at the same time as Micah Richards. After the Kevin Keegan's free-spending reign, it was clear that if City were to achieve anything in the medium-term it would be off the back of Ireland, Richards and the other colts. There was a fawnish fragility about him; an imagination so incongruous in a team based on mindless muscularity. When Richard Dunne just wanted to find Darius Vassell or Paul Dickov in the channels, having a midfielder who could measure and thread a pass was a thrilling change. And his technical ability was unlike anyone else we had. His first goal for City - a half-volley at Bramhall Lane in a 1-0 win on Boxing Day - could not have been scored by anyone else at the club. His third goal was even better: a dipping volley from distance in our FA Cup 5th round win at Deepdale.
His was clearly a raw talent. Those moments were flickers of light, but more often than not he looked lost in that drowning team. When Thaksin Shinawatra and Sven Göran-Eriksson arrived in summer 2007, Ireland found himself fitting more comfortably into the team. He played on the right of a 4-4-1-1, and while his anonymity was frustrating much of the time there were still match-winning moments. He won us two home games in November with decisive volleys: first Sunderland and then Reading. Like everyone, his performances tailed off, and his promise remained undelivered upon as things collapsed around him.
Which made his next so season so remarkable. Mark Hughes came in, followed a few months later by Sheikh Mansour. Ireland spent the summer in physical training, shaving his head and bulking up - giving him the physical tools to manifest his innate technical ability. He found a sympathetic manager in Hughes, willing to build the team around him in a 4-2-3-1 that freed Ireland up in his favoured positions. He found his voice as a footballer and it was a joy to watch. Hard-working, inventive, able to break into the box and score: it was a glimpse of potential fulfilled. I'm not going to list every goal and moment, but the stand-out moments were his all-round performances in the 6-0 and 5-1 Eastlands demolitions of Portsmouth and Hull respectively, those finishes into the corner in the 3-0 against Arsenal, or the 2-2 at Hull, the way he would break into the box to score on the counter: think Schalke, Newcastle away, Everton away and, most importantly, in the Nordbank. It was the best individual season had by a City player since Ali Bernarbia in 2001/02: he won our Player of the Season but should have taken the PFA Young Player of the Year too.
Looking back, it felt like the platform to far greater achievements in an upwardly mobile team. In fact, it was the zenith of his City career. That summer Mark Hughes signed Carlos Tévez, who played in the same space as Ireland. Dropping off rather than driving forward, but still in that gap between opposition defence and midfield. So Hughes started the season with Ireland deeper than he was used to, anchoring what was essentially a 4-2-4. It wasn't his natural game and he struggled to adapt. After revelling without shackles the year before, this responsibility seemed to inhibit him. It did not take too long for Nigel de Jong to replace him.
In a sense that was that. He still played a few games: in the cups, on the wings, even back in his favoured role when Tévez was in Buenos Aires. But he was not the Ireland of the previous year. I suppose it was a confidence issue. He never seemed to quite adjust to being dropped in the autumn, to the reality created by the arrival of Tévez. Roberto Mancini arrived, with a demand for instant results in the push for fourth, and so Ireland's opportunities were further limited. With Mancini bringing in David Silva, Yaya Touré and of course James Milner this summer Ireland was only going to be pushed further aside. His willingness to stay and fight for his place is admirable, and makes the club's forcing him out harder to take.
Because if Stephen Ireland - who can be the best player in a team with Robinho, Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong - can tower over his team-mates for a season, well, then, what hope is there for the rest of them? Danny Sturridge has gone. Nedum Onuoha is out for now. Micah Richards is still here but if he repeats his performance from Saturday he won't be for much longer. And Michael Johnson has replaced Valeri Bozhinov as the player whose glorious return is always just six weeks away. With Ireland at Villa we must now face the fact that the 1986-88 generation will not make it at Manchester City. It's possible that the Jérémy Helan and John Guidetti generation will. But these boys won't. And Ireland was the best of them.
I hope he does well at Villa. It all depends on who their next manager is. Someone who will play him in his favoured position, every week, put an arm round his shoulder and tell him how good he is? If they do that he'll be one of the best in the league again by Christmas. They might be our rivals, but I can only hope this is what happens. It is a sadness that he will not play out his career at City. I just hope he fulfils his potential elsewhere.
Stephen Ireland MCFC 2005-2010. 142 starts, 23 goals.