Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Ireland leaves City

The dominant emotion this evening is sadness. This is no reflection on James Milner. We could be getting Wesley Sneijder for £18million plus Stephen Ireland and I would still be disappointed at Ireland's departure. Because Ireland is a player whom we care for deeply, who delighted us for years with his natural gifts and the promise of more to come. In 2008/09 he gave us a glimpse of a future when big money imports and Academy players would play in the same team, bringing the best out of each other. As he departs so does the lingering hope that there will be any Academy foundation to our teams of the next few years.

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.


CelticsBlues said...

What hurts the most is remembering how we felt as we watched him grow. For a while it was if Superman would fly through the ionosphere.

Again thanks for the excellent posting. This reads like an obituary although Superman is far from dead - I think that's what makes this whole situation so sad.

thedrogsballacks said...

Excellent blog, really enjoyed it.. Definitely sounds like an obituary too!

Whilst I don't rate Ireland as highly as you do, I still find it baffling that City are prepared to spend so big on Milner - a technically inferior player to Ireland - also letting Ireland go in the process. If his attitude was the problem, then signing Balotelli inside the same week doesn't make sense.

As for his future at Villa: people seem to assume that he'll be a direct replacement for Milner, but I simply can't see that. Playing alongside Petrov in the heart of the midfield, Milner both covered a lot of ground and was competent defensively - Ireland is neither. I'd assume that Villa will continue playing 4-4-1-1, only with Ireland behind Carew/Agbonlahor rather than Young. Which ironically - given the nature of the blog - will likely see Mark Albrighton (who by all accounts was fantastic at the weekend) moved back to the bench.

jabashoran said...

Great blog as ever...

Sad as anyone to see Stevie go, especially coming from Ireland where I had to defend his decision to pull out of international football to friends / Rags every time an Ireland match came about.. was really willing him to push on from his great season but wasn't to be for whatever reason. All the best Superman..

wizzballs said...

Well written (as ever) and a very decent account of his time at the club.

Not quite sure that the obituary tone is quite justified. Beyond the sentiment of us fans 'caring' for the boy....he's a young professional moving on to the next challenge in his career.

I think his situation at Villa will be a lot more healthy than it was at City.

And I certainly wouldn't give up hope on the Academy just yet.

Stephen left because the manager decided it had to happen. I think one reason he made this decision, was that Ireland, personally, couldn't adapt. Didn't adapt quickly enough to what had suddenly become a pressurised, unstable enviroment. Didn't adapt to the tactics enough, maybe didn't react well to being in and out of the team.

The next generation will know exactly what they are getting into. And it's rare to find a young player who can't adapt his game. The attrition rate will be high but there is still the scope for success.

What's more worrying is that the current crop of 16 year olds are universally held to be the weakest for some time.

Right kid, wrong place, wrong time.

Good luck Stephen!

budakon said...

Again, a lovely obituary for a player who will be fondly remembered for the genius he showed so brightly for that one season.
However it is correct that he is moving on and I only hope that he finds a sympathetic manager that can find a way to nurture his talents.

Having said that, I don't believe that City can afford to shape a whole team around him when that means we can only play one formation. I am also not sure a modern top premiership team can afford to employ midfielders that cannot/won't track back and tackle.

Although Milner is not a direct replacement as some would believe, he does provide a hard working, flexible, dependable and occasionally skillful and exciting alternative.

Finally I am not too sure I agree with this assessment "As he departs so does the lingering hope that there will be any Academy foundation to our teams of the next few years".
Yes, we are less dependent on bringing young talent through nowadays. But there is genuine hope for the future in Boyata, Cunningham, Ibrahim, Helan, Nimely et al.

Henry Crun said...

Over the years I have become less and less sentimental about the players that have come through City's revolving door.

And so it is with Ireland, he showed promise, but has never fulfilled it. He had that one good season when he got his head together and spent the summer training. And it showed on the pitch, but that bright spark faded somewhat and I felt that he wasn't quite onboard with where City wanted to be.

It says much about how he is rated in the game that Villa were prepared to take him in part-exchange for Milner. Where were the rest of the so-called footballing giants? Not beating a path to City's door.

@jabashoran: You should never have to justify the absence of a City player in international matches to a rag. Two words: Ryan Giggs. He has had that many miraculous recoveries from hamstring strains after not turning out for Wales, that the Vatican are investigating.

Rob said...

One of the best I've seen.
What potential.
Wishing him all the very best.
We will regret this I'm sure!

longwayfromhome said...

Probably not sadness ... but certainly regret for what might have been. I don't think anyone foresaw the impact on Superman amongst the celebrations (and not little disbelief) that the Chief had swapped allegances. Silva was just the final nail in the coffin of his City career, but he didn't show anything last year to stop Mancini looking elsewhere. I do hope he finds his niche I really do - theres a genuine talent there screaming to get out - the time needed to find what is needed to produce it week in week out just isnt available at City. Thanks Stevie and GL <3

The Electric Donkey said...

Suprised no-one is mentioning how well he linked up with Robinho and the impact the latters off-loaning had on his game.

I'll miss him, always thought he might just be city's equivalent of Lampard/Giggs.

Good luck Superman.

marty said...

astute piece. he will indeed be missed and i lament not seeing him fulfil his abundant potential in sky blue. thanks and best wishes, superman.

Luke said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that Villa will make a tidy profit in a year's time by selling Stevie to Man U.

Sir Alex has always appreciated what Ireland is able to do and might look to him as a long term replacement to Scholes.

Excellent post, Jack. You do us proud.

1.618034 said...

Another great obituary/eulogy/epitaph. You're just an old romantic aren't you Jack? Proper City fan!

The thing is, I'm not sure that Villa's style will suit him. Although it might not be standard 4-4-2 any more under Gillespie or whoever... Quite a volatile situation to go to but I hope he does well. But if and when he does I won't begrudge it to him or Villa. All the best Stevie.

I wonder if villa would buy a banner off us?