Ireland’s career has been defined by inconsistent performances on the pitch and bizarre behavior off it. Of his five, full Premier League seasons, only the 2008-09 campaign was particularly impressive. He scored 13 goals that year, more than tripling his haul from the year before and more than quadrupling his total the season after.
But after Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes at Eastlands, he never scored for City again. Yes, an influx of high-priced midfield players forced him out of a guaranteed starting spot, but there was always more to it than that.
'Stephen is a fantastic player, and if he can change his head I think he can start to play like [2008-09] again,' said Mancini at the time.
Villa manager Houllier took it one step further in comments earlier this week.
'[Ireland] needs to work harder,' he said. 'The skill is one thing, but you need to compete.'
Mental toughness has never been an Ireland characteristic. Brian Kerr will attest to that, as Ireland’s many troubles with the Irish national team began at the under-18 level when he threw a fit after Kerr, the coach, sat him out for a match.
So, too, will Steve Staunton. He was the senior national team manager in 2007 when Ireland abruptly left the Irish camp just days before a match against the Czech Republic to attend the funeral of his maternal grandmother. Problem was, she hadn’t died. Ireland quickly changed his story and insisted it was his paternal mother who had passed away. But she hadn’t died, either.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Manchester City boss at the time, called Ireland 'stupid' for concocting the lies, and when asked about playing the midfielder in an upcoming match, stated, 'I don’t know if he is in the right mind to play.'
Notice a pattern here?
While Ireland hasn’t had to endure the death of a third grandmother since arriving at Aston Villa, he’s managed to frustrate yet another coach with his lack of commitment. Barry Bannan, Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker are all preferred choices in Houllier’s midfield at the moment, and Ireland won’t find himself with an increased role unless he steps up his dedication and work ethic, and soon.
Thankfully, he does have two things going for him. One is his age. At 24, he’s still young enough to be properly shaped by a manager who’s willing to take on the challenge.
The manager is the second thing. Houllier has shown a willingness to give chances to old players, young players and fringe players since arriving at the club earlier this season. No one will be left out in the cold under his regime. That bodes well for Ireland, who will probably need all the chances he can get.