Ireland needs to get his groove back

Even if that was just put there by mischievous editors wanting to cash in on the fact the teams were meeting later that day, there's a troubling dimension to all the City rumors because they would appear to affect the future of Stephen Ireland. Just twelve months after he was talked about as one of the few home-grown products destined to survive in the new, monied era at the club, Ireland looks increasingly like a man destined for the door. Indeed, elsewhere in the tabloids, there was even a helpful item wondering whether Arsenal remained as interested in his signature as they used to be. That's as may be. For now, what concerns us is his form at Eastlands.

"Stephen Ireland....This season needs you!" is the title of a lengthy thread on the message board of Bluemoon, the City fundamentalists' website. Nothing better captures what an indifferent campaign he's had than that pithy remark. The magically inventive footballer of last season has disappeared from view. Whether it's the toll injuries are taking on him or just plain, old loss of form, he's nothing like the player who could easily lay claim to being the creative Irish influence since Liam Brady was in his pomp.

"The last six months under Mark Hughes was very frustrating for me," said Ireland the other week, apportioning some of the blame to the former City manager. "I was being played out of position. Maybe as a holding midfielder, left wing, right wing. It is not me. You have to adjust and think 'I have to do it' but if you want the best out of me you have to play me in my best position. Then I can be myself because the chains are off. The new manager is doing different things but he has done a really positive job so far. We are still scoring goals but we have not conceded as many and are working hard."

Ireland is definitely working hard under Roberto Mancini, just not as often. In the past two months, more or less since the Italian took over the team, he has started and finished one league game for Manchester City. That's a worrying statistic and one that makes his criticism of Hughes slightly puzzling. Most of the time under the Welshman, Ireland started and more importantly tended to finish nearly every game. Now, if he makes the starting XI, he's almost always ordained to be the first person taken off.

Not all of this is his fault either. In the first half of last Sunday's clash with Liverpool, there was yet more evidence that Ireland doesn't always receive the passes his runs into space demand and deserve. Time and again, City players failed to recognize or acknowledge his availability with passes. Indeed, without knowing how the internal politics of the dressing-room at the club work, it appears Nigel de Jong would rather hoof the ball into the stand than slide it ten or fifteen yards into the path of the Cobh native. Last weekend alone, there were at least three blatant occasions in the first half when the Dutchman looked elsewhere when Ireland was the easiest option. Did he not see him or did he not want to see him?

Perhaps that's just our innate Cork paranoia coming out but really, almost every time Ireland gets the ball he does something useful with it. Okay, he messed up a half-chance that came his way in the box against Liverpool but his distribution remains excellent. He redirects the play, creating space and shifting defenders onto the back foot. Whenever City play the ball through him, they seem to do better than when they don't. Well, at least they used to. It's so long now since he was the fulcrum of their creativity that concerns must be growing that his future lies away from Manchester.

The message boards suggest the club's fans are seriously divided on the issue. Some believe Ireland to be a victim of Mancini's safety-first approach and that with a more positive tactical arrangement, one that allows him to be playing behind a front two, he could rediscover his former glory. More contend he's a luxury item, not quite a striker and somebody who isn't strong enough to play in the middle of the midfield. The curious thing is the supporters seem to be evenly split on the issue of whether he should stay or go.

Those of us who regard him as the most exciting Irish talent since Roy Keane was swaggering around the City Ground under Brian Clough feel the writing is on the wall. With no rhyme or reason to City's purchasing policy, it's almost certain he will be declared surplus to requirements this summer. This mightn't be the worst thing in the world either. For a 23 year old to be so brutally moved on from the club he joined a teenager, and obviously loves, this would be a jolt that might alert him to the fact football is a fleeting affair.

A dream scenario would have him going elsewhere and realizing that in a game where loyalty is a forgotten virtue, playing for your country is the only thing that can span your entire career. That would be about the time Signor Trapattoni calls to ask him to come back into the Ireland fold and he answers: "Yes." Like John O'Shea's move to Barcelona, a dream scenario.

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