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Tuesday 21 November 2017

Exactly ten years ago, Ireland was the star for Ireland

The Republic of Ireland’s Stephen Ireland rounds Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score winner and make history during the Euro 2008 qualifier at Croke Park. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland’s Stephen Ireland rounds Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score winner and make history during the Euro 2008 qualifier at Croke Park. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Few who were there will forget the night the Republic of Ireland broke through a veil of history, bad blood and enmity to run out on the sacred turf in Croke Park.

On Friday night, it will be ten years to the day since an astonishing 72,539 sons and daughters of the Celtic Tiger turned up to see another Ireland, Stephen, score the only goal of a dour, Euro 2008 qualifying game with Wales.

It was three welcome points for a beleaguered Steve Staunton following a 5-2 defeat by Cyprus and a humiliation on a mountainside in Italy called San Marino.

It was Ireland who saved Staunton with a late goal for a 2-1 win against genuine part-timers and even if many fans of the national team were ready for a new manager, this slightly odd but very articulate lad offered hope for the future.

He was Manchester City's star man at a time when money began to pump through a once great club's veins again and it seemed as if Mark Hughes was ready to build a team around him.

They were exciting days for Irish players at City. Willo Flood emerged at much the same time and for a while looked every bit as good as Ireland and even better when it came to beating defenders.

But it was Ireland's ability to link midfield and attack which made serious commentators sit up and wonder just how good this kid from Cork could be.

A decade later and Ireland is a training ground pro, an occasional footballer with an awful lot of money and an unclear future when his contract runs out at Stoke this summer. He played 176 games for City and in his best season 2007/2008, scored nine times in 35 league starts.

It was form like that which made this clearly eccentric but equally, richly talented footballer a very hot item indeed.

Somewhere in the middle of it all he dropped his shorts and showed off some Superman underpants in what remains one of the oddest goal celebrations in Premier League history.

Ireland crossed over into the celebrity arena, travelling in a pink Range Rover, but the granddaddy of all his bizarre controversies was his premature obituary for two or three Grannies and a private jet scrambled by the FAI to get him home from Bratislava for an imaginary funeral.

The great pity is that we will remember him for this and not what he was born to do.

Injuries have blighted every season since he was the make weight in a deal bringing James Milner to City from Villa in August 2010.

Suffered

It is worth noting that Ireland suffered from Osgood Schlatter Disease in his mid-teens, a complaint shared with people like Steven Gerrand, Danny Welbeck, Jeff Hendrick and Rafa Nadal.

A painful condition which involves swelling where the shin-bone meets the knee, it is difficult to resolve.

He was also unlucky when he broke his leg in training for Stoke in 2016 but by then, the feeling had become embedded that Ireland would never make the kind of impact every Irish fan wanted to see.

Giovanni Trapattoni and Liam Brady went for a chat when the Italian replaced Staunton and this was the result.

"I've never seen anyone so arrogant. I met him once. He was taking calls every two minutes and made me hang around for 15 minutes in his office. In the end, he said, 'if you want to play then come, if not, it's no problem'. He did that mainly so the press would leave him in peace."

At any point since, he could have picked up the phone to someone in the FAI and made himself available for selection. He would have been forgiven his Grannies and pretty much anything else if he had knuckled down and played for his country.

If he had done that, he would now be a senior and central figure in this Ireland squad and perhaps the player we could show to the Welsh when they brag about Gareth Bale.

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