Stephen Ireland: Bittersweet invincibility
The highs and lows of Superman's City career.
When asked if Manchester City are still his team, Stephen Ireland’s answer is instant and unequivocal.
It is ten years this summer since the Academy graduate left the Club, somewhat reluctantly, after being told he was not part of Roberto Mancini’s plans, but a bond remains with the place he called home for nine years.
“It was quite scary for me to leave,” he tells mancity.com, as he recalls his transfer to Aston Villa as part of the deal that saw James Milner arrive at the Etihad Stadium.
“It was all I knew and I loved it. I worshipped the place. I really did feel it was my club. When I look at the badge it gives me a feeling instantly. A bit like your heart skipping a beat.
“When I put the shirt on, I felt like a superhero. I felt like I was putting on something that resembled something big and it gave me real purpose.
“Leaving was such a daunting thing for me to do. I remember driving down to Birmingham and I felt really sad and I was thinking I’m not sure if it was what I wanted.
“I felt really scared and nervous. I wasn’t a Manchester City player. It felt really off putting.”
"That season I felt invincible. I felt unbelievable on the pitch. I was outrunning everybody and my stats were through the roof."
"The hardest part to swallow is how I didn’t kick on from that season or maintain what I was doing. That was a turning point in my career because I didn’t."
Ireland’s premonitions proved correct.
His time at Villa Park was the unhappiest of his career and, whilst he enjoyed working with Mark Hughes again at Stoke City, he was severely hampered by injury, which means his best spell came whilst he was wearing sky blue.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses.
There were highs, like stepping off a plane to be greeted by hundreds of City fans chanting Ireland is Superman, but there were lows too, like tying himself in knots when his form dipped.
And then there was the parting of the ways.
Ireland does not disguise how difficult he found being told he was surplus to requirements and it still hurts, but City, the Club he joined as a 15-year-old, is still a place he continues to recall with great fondness.
Unsurprisingly, the Irishman can’t rewind without discussing the 2008/09 campaign, when, still only 22, he would come to the fore as the Club’s star man in a side which include the talent of Robinho and Elano.
He played a career best 50 times that season, scoring 13 goals and providing the same number of assists as he won City’s Player of the Year, whilst also earning a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination.
“The best of my career,” is how the 33-year-old recalls a season which was born out of the embarrassment of one his lowest moments in football.
Mark Hughes, someone who remains a friend and was a guest at Ireland’s wedding, deserves credit, too.
He was the positive influence who got the best out of the dynamic midfielder, but the seeds for that stellar season were sown at the end of the previous campaign and the infamous 8-1 humbling at Middlesbrough.
“I came off after the game and was meant to go back on the bus, but I went back separately because I just couldn’t be on the bus anymore,” Ireland explains.
“Sven [Goran Eriksson] got told he was leaving a couple of weeks before. We all knew it. Training had been a mess.
“Sven’s team talk before that game had been: ‘I don’t know where I am going to be after this. I’m sure you already know now I’m making my way. I don’t know what’s happening with you guys. Thanks for everything.’
“Everybody just went out there and went through the motions. It was the most embarrassing day of my life.
“I went back to my house after that game and told my wife we weren’t going on holiday.
“I said: ‘I’m staying here and I’m going to train like a maniac. I’m not being on the end of that anymore. I have to step up my game and everything in my career because that’s the worst I’ve ever felt.’
“I trained the whole summer and I came back to preseason way ahead of schedule. I felt like I had the edge over people. I was fitter, faster, strong and mentally tough.
“That preseason I was linked with Sunderland and Bolton and all these different teams. I felt I was absolutely flying so I was hoping Mark Hughes could see what I was doing.
“He started off with me right wing and I was thinking here we go again. Luckily everything came off for me. I played amazing and then I earned my spot in midfield and game to game it just built.”
By the turn of the year Ireland had directly contributed to 16 goals in a City side whose form had been indifferent.
Hughes, in his first season in the job and having brought in no fewer than seven players in the summer, was struggling to find consistency with his new-look team, but Ireland was thriving.
“That season I felt invincible,” he says.
“I felt unbelievable on the pitch. I never came off. I was outrunning everybody and my stats were through the roof. I never felt tired after the game.
“It was the point in my career when everything came together.
“Mark Hughes had a great way of doing things and that helped massively. He simplified everything for me with training, his way of looking at the game and getting the best of out of me.
“After the initial preseason we had with him I went from strength to strength and came into my own. I felt like nothing could hold me back and I was creating my own luck.
“I was trying the most ridiculous things and they were coming off purely because I was in that state of mind where you have no fear.
“I scored a lot of goals. I made a ridiculous number of assists and I played out of my skin.
“I was everywhere. I was going from making last ditch tackles in my own six-yard box and five seconds later I’d be tapping it in at the other end.
“I was just playing with this confidence. It’s hard to explain, but when I went out on the pitch, no matter who I played against, I felt like I would outrun and outplay them every single time.”
A decade later and that standout season is a bittersweet memory.
Whilst City would improve, Ireland struggled to replicate his remarkable form and that feeling of confidence would slowly disappear.
He looks back now and accepts the downturn in form was a product of circumstances both in and out of his control.
His role had changed, but he is honest enough to admit he wasn’t hitting the level of the previous season.
It prompted a period of soul searching from the midfielder, who remains frustrated to this day at his failure to recapture his best form during 2009/10.
“The hardest part to swallow is how I didn’t kick on from that season or maintain what I was doing. That was a turning point in my career because I didn’t.
“I still went on to have a good season, but it wasn’t the same level. I was in and out and in different positions.
“There were some glimpses, some half games, but I just couldn’t get into a consistent run of form. I wasn’t getting the run of games, which didn’t help.
“I’m not blaming nothing or no one. I probably didn’t perform to the level I did the season before. That’s my fault. I’m not looking for an excuse or scapegoat.
“Sometimes I’d have the best half of my life and then the second half I’d be awful. I just couldn’t get back to that level.
“I spoke to people to figure out answers because I cared. I was worried, I didn’t want to let the fans down.
“We concluded that the season before was so good that I set my stall so high in that No.10 position.
“I’d done so well that if I came up short in games I was hard on myself and other people would say ‘he’s not at it again’. I was a victim of my own success.
“At the same time, the formation was different. We went back and it was me and Gareth Barry sitting and Tevez No.10 with Adebayor up top.
“All of a sudden I had different demands on myself. It was affecting me because I was thinking what about my runs, what about my goals and assists.
“It was tough, and I found it hard to adjust to being told to sit. It takes time to adjust and in football you don’t have it.
“Before you know it Mark Hughes was out the door and Mancini came in.”
The timing of Ireland’s loss of form could not have been worse.
Having missed only two games prior to Mancini’s arrival, he was left out of seven matchday squads in the latter half of the season.
Desperate to impress, Ireland admits he piled too much pressure on himself, which was a stark contrast to the attitude which had yielded so much success the season before.
“I always carried stresses into games with me.
“The season I was on fire I would go out thinking I’m going to get man of the match today and it always came off. No matter who I played against or who I marked. I was going out with confidence and a clear mind.
“Under Mancini I was carrying stress into the game. Sometimes I’d be running, and I’d feel like I was carrying a weight vest because the stress was holding me back from playing with freedom.
“I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. I was carrying around too much pressure and then the worst things went, the more pressure I’d mount on myself.
“It has been a hard lesson and I’d like to pass this onto kids eventually because it is lonely out there. It’s a team sport but it’s lonely on the pitch.
“You live inside your head a lot. I’m very bad for doing that and that season I couldn’t play with a clear mind. I was beating myself up all the time.”
At the start of the following campaign, a little over a year after he had been City’s best player, Ireland left the Club.
It stung, but today, there are no hard feelings, only a regret that he wasn’t able to convince Mancini he was worthy of a place in his squad.
It is a regret that stems from Ireland’s belief that he could have made a positive contribution, but also because Manchester City is a club that continues to mean so much to him.
“They are my fondest memories and my fondest times,” he adds.
“There is no comparison. When I think about Manchester City, when I’m sitting at home or something triggers it off, or if I’m daydreaming like most people do, I think about my academy days all the time.
“They were the best days of my life. It was like one giant family and we were all in it together. I have some amazing memories.
“It was an amazing time. I really loved it.”