All has gone quiet again at Villa Park regarding Ireland. And whilst there is much speculation regarding the player, if truth be told, nobody outside of the inner echelons of the club knows what is going on with him. Speculation regarding discontent or a niggling injury aside – I believe that if Ireland remains when the window closes, he could prove to be one of Villa’s most valuable acquisitions in the months ahead.
Let us wind back the clock to Summer 2010. Aston Villa were utterly shafted by the financial clout of Manchester City in their pursuit of James Milner. Similar to how Villa have recently waved the dollar under the noses of Sunderland admittedly, but at least we had the decency to conduct our business professionally. That aside we acquired Ireland as an £8 Million pound make-weight in the deal. All seemed rosy to some extent – but evidently there was trouble on the horizon.
O’Neill departed the club five days before the start of the new season. This rocked the club being both unexpected and at the point of no return in terms of season preparation. This obvious sabotage by O’Neill aside, I can only see this as jolting the fragile nature of a player such as Ireland. As the first part of the season shows us, Villa were on the ropes, struggling to regain a balance of sorts. Our early season teamsheets were erratic, erroneous and unpredictable. Ireland was expected to slot in and deliver the brilliance we had seen on Match of the Day two/three seasons prior, immediately.
I forget the specific match – indeed most of the first half of the season is forgettable – but I recall Ireland looking awfully lost on more than one occasion. With Agbonlahor injured and the club lurching between questionable team selections and tactical upheaval Ireland was thrown into this all-encompassing attacking roll. Villa might as well have picked me. This was never the Ireland I knew, the sprightly, energetic and thoughtful threader of a telling through ball. The groans when the passes didn’t come off for Ireland soon came. And it reminded me very much of when Stilian Petrov first joined the club.
Now – Stephen Ireland could well leave the club the moment this article posts and call us a bunch of morons in the press. He could further blacken his name by joining Birmingham City. Or he could do what Petrov did. Petrov arrived at Villa with a fine reputation for work ethic and goals from Celtic. He arrived in a poor Villa team. We expected him to fix everything and win us the league and make everything alright again. In short he was lumbered with all the expectations – and performed about as well as anyone would under such pressure. Sound familiar? When at the start of the season, we had nothing going for us; “..at least we have Ireland to keep us ticking over for our European challenge!”
It took Petrov the best part of eighteen months to settle – Ireland arrived having played little or no football. What football he had played was out of form, jaded and frankly, exactly as any player lacking match sharpness looks. I believe that the pressure is off Ireland now in some respects. Indeed expectations from most Villa fans couldn’t be lower. This is the time for him to knuckle down and get himself to a position on the bench where he can make his return. I am neither here or there with him as a person or a player. But I do know that there is a quality footballer in Stephen Ireland. The question is whether he is willing to show it or if we are willing to embrace the possibility that it could happen.