In 2007, Croke Park opened their doors to football and rugby internationals for the first time. The home of the Gaelic Athletic Association – the organisation running Ireland’s national sports who forbid members from participating in so called ‘foreign games’ for much of its existence – voted to allow the national sides play fixtures in the 80,000 capacity stadium when Lansdowne Road was undergoing redevelopments.
It was a landmark decision at the time given the embittered history between the GAA and other codes dating back to the War of Independence with Great Britain in the early 1920s. In the four years at Croke Park, Ireland’s rugby team thrived and were involved in many special occasions, including England’s first visit to the ground in 2007 which ended in the most rousing and resounding of home victories.
If the rugby team recall those years fondly, the footballers would rather erase them from memory. Their tenure in Croke Park took place midway through the Euro 2008 campaign and coincided with Steve Staunton’s ill fated reign. In their first match on the GAA’s hallowed turf, Ireland beat Wales 1-0 in a key qualifier. The Welsh side featured a scrawny 17 year-old by the name of Gareth Bale, but the undoubted star of an otherwise mediocre contest was midfielder Stephen Ireland, who cooly rounded Danny Coyle and slotted in to an empty net for the only goal of the game.
Ireland was the one ray of light in a dismal period for Irish football. Staunton presided over some truly abysmal performances and results, and it would have been worse without the young Corkman. Ireland saved Irish blushes with an injury time winner away to minnows San Marino and scored his fourth international goal in his sixth cap against Slovakia.
Both that goal and game would prove his last in a green shirt though. Just days before a must-win meeting with Czech Republic, Ireland was granted compassionate leave from the squad after the death of his Grandmother. It later emerged that neither of his Grandmothers had passed away and that he fabricated the story because his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage.
At the time, Ireland had broken into the Manchester City side and was one of the standout young players in the Premier League. Over the next couple of years, new Republic manager Giovanni Trapattoni attempted in vain to reintroduce him to the fold. In the 2008/09 season, Ireland was outstanding. He scored 13 times for Mark Hughes’ newly cash rich team and was named Player of the Season by the club’s supporters. Diminutive in stature, Ireland credited his explosive, box-to-box capabilities to rigorous summer kickboxing training he undertook. City tied him down to a lucrative five year contract and he was poised for the brightest of futures. Ireland’s form only served to emphasise further how much he was missed in the national side, but he always appeared reluctant to return when quizzed in the media.
Sadly, he would never replicate that breakout year at City. Hughes was sacked and replaced by Roberto Mancini, who favoured veteran Patrick Vieira over the Irishman. The following season, he joined Aston Villa, a move which never worked out. He was loaned out to Newcastle, dropped to the reserves and made headlines for the exorbitant cars he purchased and the night clubs he frequented rather than his performances on the pitch.
Ireland has never been a deep thinker in relation to the game. In 2009, he revealed that Roy Keane was his idol and expressed his admiration for the way Keane would dominate games. ‘Whenever things were getting hot and heavy for them, Keane would just get in there and hit someone hard — someone like Zinedine Zidane — and everyone would be like: “Look at that!” They would take their lead from that and they would be off and running. In my head, that’s me. That’s the person I want to be.’
That of course completely misinterpreted how Keane or any of the great midfielders controlled games. They did so by keeping possession, taking ownership of the ball under pressure and consistently taking command rather than producing moments. Ireland had the tools to do similar, but required better guidance from the coaches he worked with.
A decade on from his Croke Park introduction, Ireland’s career is in a tailspin. He reunited with Hughes at Stoke City, but has been dogged by a succession of injuries. Ireland broke his leg in early 2016 and hasn’t played since. Stoke extended his deal beyond this summer in order to give him an opportunity to regain full fitness, but Ireland’s future prospects don’t look positive.
Ireland’s struggles haven’t seen him illicit much sympathy from Irish fans who are still baffled by his refusal to play for his country, but it all could have been so different. He could have followed a different path and represented his nation at a major tournament or two. Maybe under the tutelage of a better manager, he would’ve learned exactly where he fit in the footballing landscape. Instead, there’ll probably always be more questions than answers.