The current incarnation of Manchester City – the freewheeling global powerhouse managed by Pep Guardiola, handing out thrashings to lesser sides like they’re going out of fashion – bears little resemblance to what went before. The club was utterly transformed on 1st September 2008, when the Abu Dhabi United Group confirmed its takeover.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s one-year ownership had become increasingly shambolic as his assets were frozen and he faced corruption charges back in Thailand. Sheikh Mansour and his entourage turned up at just the right time, purchasing Shinawatra’s stake in City and launching last-minute bids for several players as the transfer window neared its closure. Most deals fell through but the new owners emerged from their mad trolley dash with Robinho in tow.
A club-record signing from Real Madrid, the Brazilian superstar had cost £32.5million. He was the dazzling figurehead for their project, a glossy symbol of a bright future. Champions League football was promised within three years but there was plenty of work to be done. Mark Hughes had some talented players to call on as well as a few misfits who were spectacularly unsuited to the club’s hastily revised targets.
Robinho made his debut at home to Chelsea, lining up alongside a motley crew that included Richard Dunne, Michael Ball and Jo. He opened the scoring with a sumptuous free kick after just 13 minutes but the visitors came back to win comfortably despite a late John Terry red card. Since Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta moved on last summer, Vincent Kompany is the only common thread remaining between that squad and this one.
A 6-0 hammering of Portsmouth followed a week later, with the new owners present to take in their first game. It wasn’t a sign of things to come, however, as City’s form remained indifferent. Mired in mid-table, the situation never threatened to improve and they went on to finish in tenth. The bright spot of the season was a uniquely talented playmaker with quick feet and goalscoring instincts who stood out above all else. While Robinho flickered intermittently, Stephen Ireland was in the form of his life.
Taking into account how his career has panned out since, it can be difficult to recall quite how promising the young midfielder was felt to be. Just 21 when the season kicked off, Ireland had already made 96 appearances for the club in all competitions. Even with the forthcoming revolution in City’s fortunes that Sheikh Mansour’s billions intended to bring about, many thought that he would have a major role to play.
As Robinho, Craig Bellamy, Nigel de Jong and others arrived for sizeable fees that season, Ireland established himself as an utterly indispensable member of the team. He played 52 games, starting all but two, and was bewitching with the ball at his feet. Sporting a newly shaven head he demonstrated an eye for an incisive pass and limitless energy.
The class clown, known for exposing his Superman boxers after scoring against Sunderland, was finally being taken seriously. From central midfield he contributed nine goals, including a delicate effort from outside the area as part of a brace against Hull, and the same number of assists. He was bright and inventive, the perfect foil for Kompany, who was often used in a holding midfield role during his first season.
Ireland’s exceptional form earned him a new five-year contract on greatly improved terms and he was overwhelmingly voted as the club’s Player of the Year. Despite competition from a couple of Brazilian internationals, it was the boy from Cork who deservedly won out. Ireland’s future had been widely speculated upon but he spoke confidently about what he hoped to achieve under the new regime.
“I never had any doubts about staying. Regardless, I was going to be here, and hopefully for the remainder of my career. I don’t see why not. I really want to become a hero here, to hopefully achieve things. I’m settled here – I love the club, I love the fans, and I don’t see what’s going to make me leave this club,” he said at the time.
“These are very exciting times. It’s going to be interesting just to see what the line-up will be at the start of next season and how far we can push on. Hopefully we can compete for the title and get back into Europe. I’ve always trusted my ability, but it’s only this season I’ve come out of my shell. I worked hard last summer to try and reach the targets I set myself. I reached some, the others are something to aim at next season.”
Regrettably, things would never be that good again. With Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, Gareth Barry and Kolo Toure added to the ranks over the summer, the team that began the season at Blackburn Rovers was almost unrecognisable from the one which had taken to the field a year earlier. Ireland retained his place and scored the second in a 2-0 win. He started the first five games of the season and was heavily involved throughout the remainder of Hughes’ time in charge.
But once Hughes was sacked in December, everything shifted. Roberto Mancini’s more disciplinarian approach didn’t sit well with the occasionally wayward Ireland, who preferred reassurance and encouragement to the Italian’s unwavering firmness. While Hughes managed to coax better performances out of the midfielder, and granted him more freedom, Mancini wasn’t sure he could be trusted.
It was a clash of ideologies, and more cautious, defensively-minded alternatives were routinely selected ahead of him. Ireland barely featured in the second half of the season and was then used as a makeweight in the signing of the reliable James Milner. It was a dramatic fall from grace and something he has arguably never recovered from. A downsizing Aston Villa offered entirely the wrong stage for Ireland to revive his flagging fortunes, while City collected trophies in his absence.
He struggled under a succession of managers and hasn’t been able to hit anywhere near his former heights since moving to Stoke City in 2013. Reunited with Hughes, he has performed fitfully but never to the same standard. Ireland missed the entirety of last season with a broken leg and only returned to the bench against Newcastle last week. At 31 his career is heading towards its conclusion and he has sadly failed to fulfil his considerable potential.
Attitude problems may have played a part in that, with Ireland finding himself at the centre of several controversies. His international career never really got off the ground because of the most infamous of those, claiming that his maternal grandmother had died as an excuse to leave behind Steve Staunton’s squad and visit his girlfriend, who had suffered a miscarriage. When the truth was discovered, he claimed that it was his paternal grandmother instead, digging another unnecessary hole.
Ireland has been in exile from the national team ever since. He scored four goals in his first six appearances, looking a cut above his teammates, but has spurned several opportunities to return. A complex character, numerous managers have failed to get the measure of him. Considering his country’s struggles with controlling possession, often resorting to a muscular and combative style, his absence has undoubtedly been felt.
Hughes recently persuaded the Stoke board to extend Stephen Ireland’s contract to the end of the season as he nears a return to action after 20 months out with injury. A devastating double leg break in training has been followed by several false dawns in his recovery. Hughes’ significant support stems back to their time working together at Manchester City, when it briefly seemed like anything was possible for Ireland. Once again, he will have to learn to cope without a manager who has shown so much faith in him.