Stephen Ireland is looking at the list of big-name players who will take part in Vincent Kompany’s testimonial match on Wednesday night, working out how seriously he should approach the occasion.
Original article: theathletic.com/1196206/2019/09/10/stephen-ireland-exclusive/
It will be the first time that Ireland has been involved in a game of football since Stoke City played Swansea on May 13, 2018. He had a spell at Bolton last season but didn’t make an appearance at the crisis-hit club.
“I know I’m not a City legend,” he says during the course of a frank, three-hour assessment of his life and career, which touches on frustration, regret, vulnerability, and defiance.
Yet he is not weighing up his opponents because he needs to manage his fitness, or to avoid aggravating an old injury. He doesn’t want to be the only man out there tearing around the pitch at full pelt against retired greats like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
Ireland is 33 and, for now, without a club, and he still feels he has plenty to offer.
“I could easily play at a really high level in England, really high,” he tells The Athletic, passionately. “I know I can.
“But the only problem is I’m the only one who believes it. Nobody else does, hence I’m not even getting offers in the Championship or even League One, and that’s scary.
“I’ve even said to clubs: ‘Take me for six months, I’ll play for free.’ I don’t want money. I just want to play football.”
It’s fair to say there is a certain perception of Stephen Ireland: the talented player who was difficult to manage. Does he only have himself to blame? Or did he have more than his fair share of bad luck?
There are less-than-flattering topics that spring to mind before the memory of his very best performances for City, let alone Aston Villa.
Google’s suggestions tell a story. Type in “Stephen Ireland” and the ensuing search terms include “car”, “tattoo”, “house”, “fish tank”. If you wanted to be reminded of his on-pitch achievements, the search term “grandmother” would come up before “goals”.
He sits down at the Alderley Edge hotel in a leafy part of Cheshire, orders a coffee and a large bottle of sparkling water and talks for three hours. Tracksuit bottoms, black T-shirt, trainers. Ireland’s attire may be everyday but his remarkable story, told in his own words, is quite the opposite.
“My life was absolutely turned upside down by having two kids on my own at the age of about 18, because I split with the mother,” he says. “So I was here with them on my own from 17, 18, 19 and it was tough. Really, really tough.
“At the time there was no real player support. Man City at the time didn’t have anything like that in place. There was no help. I was on £85 a week playing in the Premier League with two kids at 19.
“My daughter was eight months old and my son was 22 months old, roughly, and it was tough. I didn’t drive. I had no family support. My mum and dad split up — my mum was over here, didn’t speak to me — and my dad was in Ireland. I don’t hold against my dad at all. I just took all the pressure on myself and I was left in the lurch on my own.
“I was turning up to games in a taxi, getting out with a baby in my arms, a little toddler and a wash bag walking into the stadium for the game at City, and the fans must have thought: ‘Who’s this maniac?’
“I had to go in and play against (Manchester) United and teams like that live on TV and my two kids are being babysat by Trevor Sinclair’s cousin in the players’ lounge.
“I was seeing guys at the time like Micah Richards and Joe Hart who were going home and they were off celebrating. They would say: ‘Stephen, are you coming out tonight?’ But I was at home changing nappies and eating a takeaway, watching TV on a Saturday night. You never felt like you’d even achieved because you’re sat in a house with two little kids under the age of two on your own, lonely, and sad.”
Ireland is incredibly grateful to those who have helped him along the way, including Stuart Pearce, who handed him his City debut against Bolton in 2005. Yet it was Pearce who oversaw a fresh contract offer that barely improved his situation.
“He offered me the exact same money of £85 a week with just a higher starting bonus,” says Ireland. “I felt like they had me snookered because of my family situation and my kids, and I needed the longevity rather than the money, but I felt kind of forced into taking it.”
Several of his team-mates rallied round when money was tight.
“Richard Dunne was really good. Ben Thatcher was actually really, really good. Ben Thatcher’s wife helped me from time to time with babysitting. I couldn’t afford car seats and stuff like that, so he gave me a lot of hand-me-down things that I couldn’t afford.
“Micah Richards was a great help. We used to live close by in Warrington and he would help me out with all sorts. I still text him now and say thank you, and he’ll be like: ‘Jesus man relax, you don’t have to keep saying thanks!’
“I really appreciate what he did for me. At the end of the month I’d be short of money for nappies or whatever, he’d help me out.
“It was quite difficult to ask in terms of pride, because he was younger than me as well, but if I’d need some help he’d lend me a couple of hundred quid, and he never wanted it back.”
Ireland’s next contract put him on par with other top City earners of the pre-Abu Dhabi days, thanks to one of those examples of scarcely believable largesse that were typical of Thaksin Shinawatra’s reign.
“Sven-Goran Eriksson came in,’ Ireland says. “I’d had an unbelievable pre-season when I really started coming into my own a bit, and I sat there one day and laid out my situation and this is what he did, which was unbelievable.
“He said: ‘Look, I can’t believe this is the situation here for you, it’s ridiculous, I really feel for you. Go home with a pen and paper and write out the contract that you want.’”
Ireland starts to laugh.
“So I was sat on my bed that night with my missus and a notepad and we’re just writing out stuff. Then stupid things on top of it like ‘every five starts I get this, every five goals I get this’. Literally like playing a game of Football Manager and getting stupid with it. Every five starts I would go up money, and if I came on from 75 minutes onwards it was counted as a half appearance, so two of those was a full appearance, so I covered myself coming off the bench and stuff. I went in the next day with this piece of paper in my hand and handed it to him, and he said: ‘OK, no problem, I’ll get back to you.’”
He laughs again.
“A couple of days later he just comes to me with an official letterhead copy of it and I just signed it, done and dusted. I just thought it was unbelievable. I’d done it all incentive-based as well, so that I was chasing down targets for myself because I wanted to make sure I was kept hungry and passionate.”
Ireland insists the sudden windfall from his first major Premier League contract did not make him less hungry to achieve. He has plenty of regrets about his career, but how he spent his money is not one of them. So did he go a little crazy with his new-found wealth?
“Basically, yeah at first,” he says. “My advice to most kids is, when you get a big contract, have three to six months having a blow out, get everything you’ve ever dreamed of, then after that go into a budgeting scheme.
“I didn’t drive until I was 22, 23, and all my team-mates were driving from 17, 18, so I thought yeah I will have two or three cars straight away and I will go a little crazy, why not?
“I don’t regret that at all, I don’t, and I never will. I don’t care what people say about that because until you’re in that position and you’re in the limelight… When you’re raising kids from 17 and you finally get the chance to go a bit crazy at 22, 23, you’ve earned the right to go a bit crazy, and I did.
“It didn’t affect my performance, so it’s nobody’s business except my own, and I won’t lose sleep over that for anybody. I don’t care. I had that period and then it just fizzled out and became normal. I couldn’t care about cars, I don’t have watches, I don’t have jewellery. All I do is spend money on my family, in terms of holidays and living.
“If I told you what me and my missus live off a month you’d be absolutely baffled. It’d probably be the same as what a lot of people are living off, and that is the honest truth and we have for the last 15, 16 years.
“I don’t want people to be pissed off by it, but me and my missus probably live off two or three grand a month, all our lives, because we don’t live beyond our means. That covers groceries, phone bills, shopping, cinema nights, restaurants. We just live off that per month and we always have, and when it comes to summer holidays we just decide where we’re going to go with the kids, and doesn’t everybody?
“We don’t sit there with an endless pot. I have friends who blow £20, 30, 40 grand every month, I wouldn’t even know how to spend it, because my lifestyle’s not like that.”
There is one topic that Ireland is still not keen to talk about openly 12 years later. In September 2007, he left the Republic of Ireland set-up suddenly, citing his grandmother’s death. Once it came to light that his grandmother was still alive, Ireland said it was his paternal grandmother who had died, and then a woman his grandfather had re-married.
Ireland apologised at the time, but feels he was caught in a lie that had got out of hand. This was partly because he had to make up excuses to get out of Ireland squads for years, so he could look after his children at a time when he was still being bailed out by Richards and Thatcher.
“With the Ireland thing, the first couple of camps I got called up I was the happiest man on the planet,” he says. “It was like I’d won the lottery, I loved it, it was such an amazing achievement.
“After that it became a bit of a circumstance thing. Steve Staunton (the Ireland manager) said I could bring my kids and they would put them in a hotel room with a babysitter, but what kind of life is that for two kids? So I didn’t do it and I had to pick and choose my moments that I could play for Ireland and when I couldn’t. I just found the 10-day camps were too much for me to give.
“I remember I was playing live on TV for City, I was meant to fly out that night with Richard Dunne to meet up with Ireland, and I’d ring Steve Staunton up after the game and say: ‘I feel sick, I can’t come’. He was like: ‘I just saw you play live on TV!’ I couldn’t sacrifice going to play for Ireland, because literally for some reason it became a case of having to pick Ireland over my kids, and all day I’m going to pick my kids.”
Ireland’s partner Jessica had suffered a miscarriage, but the family wanted to keep the story out of the media. This allowed the grandmother lie to spiral out of control.
“I just wanted it to blow over and before you know it, it just went boom,” Ireland says. “It was mental. Mental. And I’m thinking: ‘All I said was something small.’ I know it’s not. I know it’s not something you do. It was in the heat of the moment in the changing room after the match. I was buying myself time, basically.
“The other players asked where I was going, so I said: ‘Back to England for a few days because my nan’s not well.’ They were giving me hugs and that, and I felt like a prick then. Imagine going back in and saying: ‘Alright lads, listen…’
“At that point I actually felt like retiring from football. I swear to god, I actually considered retiring from football. I text my accountant and said: ‘Do I have enough money to retire?’ And he said: ‘Yeah you do, but it depends how much is enough’, and I was quite young.
“On reflection, I probably should’ve gone back and faced the music for a couple of days, but I guess I kind of ran from it. I was doing so well at Man City I didn’t want to go back, even more so.
“I wish I had dealt with things differently, that the whole thing was dealt with differently, actually, on both sides, but I wouldn’t say I regret not having played for Ireland since.
“It’s the family thing, as well. I’m such a family person and I just found it very hard. That’s why I respect the guys who do turn up and play 50, 60, 70 times for their country, because they were able to make that sacrifice and they were able to show up every time. Unfortunately for Ireland it’s not that I didn’t care, I just couldn’t do it. That will stick with me forever.”
Ireland often breaks off and takes the conversation in a different direction as his emotions kick in. After discussing the importance of his children for several minutes he returns to the crossroads in his career of 2009.
His wife, Jessica, had brought stability to his home life and he had kicked on at City under Mark Hughes, being crowned the club’s Player of the Season for 2008-09. The Abu Dhabi United Group took over City that September and Hughes was gone by December.
“At that age, 24, I probably should have got Young Player of the Year in England but Ashley Young got it in the end,” says Ireland. “I should have gone on and been at Man City for God knows how long and become such a strong figure there. I should’ve moved to a totally different level altogether, and I just didn’t…
“It sometimes makes me emotional when I sit around thinking what I was like at my peak, that one year that I had. With my relationship with the fans, it really makes me sad that it went so quick and I ended up leaving the club. Itmoved on far, far too quick for my liking, unfortunately, and I just couldn’t keep up with the pace of it.”
Ireland says City suddenly let go members of non-playing staff that he had grown close to in nearly 10 years at the club, and he took it personally. This is a theme throughout our interview. He says later one of the toughest parts of leaving Stoke City was missing the groundsmen, chefs, physios and gatekeepers with whom he had built up relationships.
“It’s hard for me,” he says. “I get emotionally attached to people quite easily and I’d do anything for people. My missus always says to me it’s one of my downfalls, but I don’t see it as a downfall, I prefer to buy into people and if I get burned, I get burned. I wear my heart on my sleeve with people like that, and that’s just me.
“Everybody was still trying to adjust and adapt and I just found it tough. I felt like it wasn’t the same club. It felt like a Real Madrid, I suppose, a bit of a business.”
Roberto Mancini will forever be fondly remembered by City fans for winning the FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League title a year later. But his strict approach ensured Ireland would never be part of that success. Ireland believes his days were numbered as soon as the Italian came in.
“From the very first day I just felt he didn’t like me,” he says. “My face didn’t fit any more and I thought he was going to get rid of me. I just felt he was always victimising me with things like making me go (and train) with the kids or in the way he spoke to me.
“I was trying my hardest to make him like me. I was literally going to him and asking: ‘Could we do some one-to-one stuff afterwards on shooting, because I remember you played No 10, so you can teach me this?’ I hoped that he would be thinking: ‘This guy wants to learn.’ Sometimes football is about kissing arse unfortunately, but I just felt like the club meant so much to me.”
Ireland explains how he went on to the pre-season tour to the USA after training all summer “like a maniac” and believed he had got Mancini onside.
“I thought: ‘Right, I’m not letting Man City go. It’s the club of my heart. I want to be here for as long as possible and I’ll make this work, even with this guy. I don’t like him but we’ve got to find a working relationship, we have to find a way together.’
“We were in America and I was on fire, everything was going well. Mancini made me captain every game and I was even telling my missus and my friends: ‘Yeah, I’ve got him on board and onside’.
“So it came to the very last game of pre-season and I sat down with him, and he pulled David Platt in to translate a little bit, and I said: ‘I know there’s a bit of animosity there but I feel like we’ve pushed on. I really want to have a strong season under you.’ And he just starts laughing. Hysterically laughing, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, what did I say?’
“I look at David Platt and he’s looking at me. He (Mancini) said: ‘Listen, you’re not getting registered in the Premier League this year at Man City, so if you don’t leave before the season starts you’ll play with the kids for a season.’
Ireland’s exasperation is clear.
“I literally was on the floor, I couldn’t get it. I swear on my kids’ lives I went back to my room and I was properly in tears and I had such a lump in the back of my throat when I rang my missus and said what I’d just been told.
“I played the last game that night, and I was in no state of mind to be playing. I even said to him, ‘Can I not play tonight?’ and he said: ‘No, you’re captain’. I said: ‘If you’re telling me I need to get out of the club then let me work on that’, but he said no. Fucking hell.
“So I went back to England and he put me with the kids. Me, (Craig) Bellamy and Robinho went over with the kids, and I felt like he was building me up to knock me down.”
Ireland insists he did nothing to turn Mancini against him. He reveals with some bemusement how the Italian greeted him warmly some three or four months later when he bumped into his old boss on the school run.
“He gives me a hug,” says Ireland. “And he’s all: ‘How are you, are you OK?’ I started walking and thinking: ‘How is he like this now? When I was at the club it felt like he just couldn’t have hated me any more.’”
You wonder if Ireland has made a rod for his own back down the years given his approach to manager relations. “Confrontation” is a word that comes up regularly. He knows his constant questioning has wound his bosses up over the years, but is unrepentant about his approach.
“I couldn’t have applied myself any more,” he stresses. “Managers don’t like me because I always knock on their door, all the time.
“You have to ask questions of them. You’ve got to make them manage, not come in every day and have their breakfast and watch training and go home. They’re managers, they’re employed to do a job, so make them manage. And that’s what I used to do. They didn’t like that I put them on their toes.
“If I didn’t care I wouldn’t come and ask. Why would I sit there and pick up my wage and not ask why I’m not in the team?
“People think I’m hard (to work with), but I am a manager’s dream, believe it or not. I’m not deluded. I would sit here and say if I was a dickhead because I’ve no other club, what have I got to lose right now?”
He says Paul Lambert at Aston Villa was one of the few managers who appreciated that approach, although even he grew tired of it eventually. But then, genuine bad luck has also been a factor in what Ireland admits has been an unfulfilled career.
“I have definitely been unlucky, but maybe some of it was my own fault,” he says. “Maybe some of it I could have helped myself, but who knows?
“When I went to Aston Villa (from City, in 2010) I got a real tough deal. Martin O’Neill signed me, I drove to Villa, we went in and sat down and I signed a couple of papers and I stopped and looked at my agent and said: ‘Can we go outside for a chat please?’ So we went outside and I said: ‘I’ve got such a bad feeling about this.’
“My wife said not to do it, but my agent was like: ‘Look, you don’t have to do it, but maybe it’s because you’ve been at City so long.’ And I don’t know, I just signed it. I’ve always gone on my gut instinct and this one occasion I didn’t.
“So I went from there to the Belfry Hotel just around the corner at half 5, sitting there having a bite to eat and watching Sky Sports News with my missus. Then it comes up on Sky Sports News, about 10 o’clock that night: ‘Martin O’Neill leaves Aston Villa.’
“And I’m like, ‘WHAT?’’
“So I ring my agent and I ask if I can pull out now and he’s like: ‘I don’t know.’ I was thinking: ‘What am I going to do? This is ridiculous.’
“I said: ‘Only me. The most bizarre things happen to me.’ Some of the things that happen to me are absolutely nuts, people won’t believe that that’s the person I am, and I think if people knew the person I was, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, or people’s opinions or whatever… I don’t know.
“I went in the next day and Randy Lerner, the owner at Villa at the time, was like: ‘Look I still want you as part of the club, we’re going to get another manager in, blah blah blah’. The first away game at Newcastle we got beat 6-0 and I thought, ‘What have I let myself in for here?’
“Then Gerard Houllier came in with Gary McAllister. I thought, yeah, Gary McAllister seems like a great guy, great midfielder, he can relate to me, and he was good, but Houllier was just…. He came in and it was like: ‘You’re a very good player but I didn’t sign you so I don’t want you here.’ I’m like: ‘Oh Jesus here we go again.’”
While Ireland admits he may have caused some of his own problems during his career, he holds Houllier responsible for his Villa move, and quite possibly his post-City career, turning sour.
“I’ve played for a few really, really horrendous managers,” he said. “I thought one in particular was Gerard Houllier. It baffles me how that guy has ever got a football job, and it scares me. It makes me think that I could easily be a manager if he’s doing it, my gardener could easily be a manager if he’s got a job, because I thought he was that bad.”
What did Houllier do to deserve that appraisal?
“Every team talk Gerard Houllier gave was about his time at Liverpool. He was like: ‘Come on guys, because I told Steven Gerrard and Danny Murphy this, and they went out and done this in the second half.’ I’m thinking: ‘You’re trying to get us riled up for the second half by telling us about Steven Gerrard and Danny Murphy?’ Honestly, you would see everybody giving each other the eyes.
“I didn’t think he had a clue about football. Everybody is training like maniacs to get in the team on Saturday and I remember he was four football fields away looking at the flowers and walking around with his hands behind his back. How is he picking the team on a Saturday? It’s frightening, frightening. That’s what killed me.
“He didn’t play me. He gave me bits and pieces here and there, made me play with the kids again, and I thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’ He sent me on loan to Newcastle and arghhhh… it was just like, ‘What is going on with my career?’
“On reflection I should have pulled the plug on Villa. When O’Neill left I should have jumped ship then. I wish, looking back, I had more time to think, but before you know it I was at Villa in the Villa training kit.”
While on loan at Newcastle, Ireland’s wife was involved in a car accident, and he suffered an ankle injury that saw him head back to the Midlands six weeks before the end of the season. He was told to take his summer holidays early and return for pre-season. Alex McLeish had replaced Houllier at Villa Park.
“Alex McLeish was such a nice guy, a kind of father figure,” says Ireland. “He said to me: ‘I don’t know what to do with you. I want to kick the balls in the channel and chase them but you’re too good to be here. You’re jeopardising the team because they’re not on the same wavelength as you.’
“Honestly, he said to me, ‘I’ll ring Sir Alex about you’. I said, ‘Fucking hell, please do, please.’”
Nothing came of it.
But Ireland got his chance in a Villa shirt on New Year’s Eve, 2011. McLeish asked him to stand in for Darren Bent, who was ill, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Ireland says: “Alex came to me saying, ‘Stephen mate I’m really sorry but I’m going to have to play you. Just get out there and play. You’re leaving in January hopefully.’ I went out and played, scored, we won 3-1, I got man of the match, after that game I played the rest of the season for Aston Villa and got Villa’s player of the year.”
Things took yet another turn for the worse under McLeish’s replacement, Lambert. Villa owner Randy Lerner had decided to ostracise several top earners in his bid to sell the club at the start of 2012-13, and after Ireland injured his wrist at Southampton that September, he found himself out of the first team for good.
“It was just me and the fitness coach, the pitch was so far away from the first team, I literally couldn’t see them. It was pitches that weren’t even pitches, it was like a grass area with trees and everything on it.
“I remember one Friday, a press guy ran down to me and said: “Stephen, quick, look, all the press are driving in to speak to the manager, can you go and hide behind that tree over there?’ I was like: ‘No!’
“How embarrassing is that? I’m down here on my own doing keepy-uppies, waiting for the fitness coach to come down and run me around the pitch. That’s what I’m doing now as a professional, as a man, as a footballer. The truth is I am down here on my own, I feel isolated, and I think I’m getting the piss taken out of me. Then they said: ‘From now on don’t come in on Fridays.'”
Ireland was still only 27 when he was handed a lifeline by Hughes at Stoke. After an impressive start, the loan move was made permanent midway through the 2013-14 season. But by the start of 2015-16, Ireland began to fall out of favour with Hughes. At the very end of the season he suffered a double leg break, which required three months’ rehabilitation work in Qatar, away from his family. He missed the whole 2016-17 campaign and made just five senior appearances the following season, after Stoke had renewed his contract in two six-month chunks to assist with his recovery.
Three of those appearances, all as a substitute, came in the final month of the season as Stoke’s relegation to the Championship was confirmed. Lambert replaced Hughes that January, but he was not the reason Ireland was cut loose. Ireland claims he was assured, face-to-face, he would “do great in the Championship” but then he was jettisoned via email hours later.
“It was bizarre,” he adds. “It’s tough because I loved the club when I was there. I’d given a lot and been through a lot there with my leg break. I felt like I was more than just a player there.”
Ireland’s two sons are still on the books at Stoke. Joshua, 15, who has represented England at Under-16 level, has been Ireland’s “guinea pig” for the very hands-on management company, Seven Sports, that he developed in the past couple of years. He has already signed up around a dozen young footballers, largely from Premier League academies, a dozen golfers and other young athletes.
“I didn’t have that much guidance and help,” he says. “I always had to find out the hard way. I want to get them prepped for what’s ahead, and help their families.
“My son has been a great example. Mentally I’ve been prepping him for years, because I know how tough it is. He is really mentally tough, nothing fazes him.”
In a bid to prepare the footballers for a career in the game, Ireland says he will tell his young players if they have had a bad performance. It is not just a school of hard-knocks, however, and Ireland will go round to the players’ houses and cook the type of meals footballers should be eating, give them one-on-one coaching sessions, and even bring them to five-a-side games with Darren Fletcher and Emile Heskey.
“I can educate them in the game, they’re playing against a frightening standard,” he says. “Fletcher and these guys are coming to play and the lads are in awe of them. It’s so good for their education.
“I give them as much support as I can, because football clubs will help you, but at the end of the day who’s caring about the individual?”
Ireland has several offers from abroad on the table, and is weighing up what is best for him and for his family, who have decided to stay in their new home in Wilmslow, wherever he ends up. Ireland is genuine in his belief that he can still play top-level football.
“Physically I feel 26 or 27 at the moment and I know what I am capable of doing and what I can achieve,” he says. But he accepts that his best, most exciting opportunities no longer lay in England.
“I want to sit there eventually and think: ‘Yeah, you know what, I’ve maxed out everything in my body, physically and mentally, and I’m content.’ But right at the moment I’m really not content, because I know what I can offer and I know what I can give and what’s scary about life in football is how fast it’s gone.”
He stresses he has never felt depressed but, when asked if he feels unfulfilled, he has no doubts.
“Yeah definitely. I have let myself down in terms of where I should have got to, definitely.”
So much so that he may struggle to interact properly with the array of stars ready to play in Kompany’s testimonial this Wednesday.
“Beckham came over to me once while I was in Miami. He came over to me in a restaurant, to my table, and talked my head off for like 20 minutes. And I’m like: ‘What is going on, how do you even know who I am?’
“Ryan Giggs has come over to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I’m still like that kid, like what the hell? It’s bizarre. Now I’m going out and I’ll play against guys like Thierry Henry, and they’ll be saying: ‘Hi Stevie, how’s things?’ and I’ll be like: ‘What are you on about?’”
He laughs. “With Scholes and all these guys I feel like I’m not even on a level to have a conversation with them. I don’t want to have a coffee with these people because I don’t feel like I deserve it.”
This is typical of Ireland. He believes he can still contribute at the top level, yet does not feel even able to have a coffee with the game’s elite. He says he would not have changed anything during his career had it meant jeopardising his family’s well-being, and yet clearly has so many regrets. He knows he wound some of his bosses up with his forthright behaviour but insists he was a “manager’s dream”.
“I don’t look at myself as a City legend,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I’m grateful for playing this game, but I don’t ever want to be branded with that because I don’t think I’ve earned it.
“But it’s going to be quite emotional for me, because it’s definitely going to be the last time I’ll ever play at the Etihad, and the last time I’ll be in a room with those guys. That’s quite scary when you think of it like that.
“I don’t want to be too uptight and too hard on myself about my performance, I just want to play with a bit of freedom and a smile on my face.”
It is impossible to listen to Ireland’s story and begrudge him that.
Original article: theathletic.com/1196206/2019/09/10/stephen-ireland-exclusive/