'I never enjoyed my time playing for Ireland'
STEPHEN IRELAND INTERVIEW: Daniel Taylortalks to the Manchester City midfielder, who has no intentions whatsoever of returning to play for the Republic of Ireland, even if fellow Corkman Roy Keane gets the manager’s job
THERE IS one obvious question with which to begin. The Republic of Ireland play the first leg of a World Cup play-off against France today and, if they were to eliminate the 1998 champions, you wonder what Stephen Ireland will feel. You think there might be regret and you ask whether, deep down, he feels uncomfortable about it, embarrassed even. But then he looks you in the eye and he barely pauses for breath.
No, he says, he would have no interest in playing in next summer’s tournament in South Africa. If there is a party to be had, he will not be outside with his face pressed up against the window. He will be back in Cheshire with his young family, preparing for the start of the following season with Manchester City – and that is just the way he wants it.
“It was a ticking time-bomb, to be honest,” he says of an international career he killed dead only a few weeks after turning 21.
“I never enjoyed my time playing for Ireland, never enjoyed it from the age of 14 or 15 when I was travelling up from Cork to Dublin. Even if they get to the World Cup, there’s not a part of me that will think, ‘That could have been me, I could have been there’. I don’t feel guilty watching them play without me. If they lose I won’t feel it was my fault. If they win, I won’t ever wish I could be there. I have a good life.”
You look for signs that it might just be bravado. You ask, again, if there is not just a tinge of regret. You study him for glimpses of hurt. But there are none.
“I always got on great with the players. It was just the whole thing. It was amateurish. Even when I was young. I would get the train up to Dublin on my own – playing, but not getting looked after. The whole set-up wasn’t nice, it wasn’t enjoyable. I didn’t feel I got much out of the games.”
Everything reached a head in September 2007 with the infamous case of the two dead grannies. To recap, Ireland pretended his maternal grandmother, Patricia Tallon, had died so he could be excused from a Euro 2008 qualifier against the Czech Republic to be with his girlfriend, Jessica, who had suffered a miscarriage. When journalists discovered she was alive and well – and shocked to read about her death in the newspapers – he changed his story to say it was his paternal grandmother, Brenda Kitchener. In the end, Ireland became entangled in a web of deceit so extraordinary it can sound like a Monty Python sketch.
This was not the point, however, when he fell out of love with international football. Playing for the youth teams, he says, was an unenjoyable experience.
“I didn’t want to go training, I was looking for excuses, but I was at the age when I couldn’t make those decisions for myself; my parents were doing that for me.”
In the under-18s he had a “big blow-up” with the manager Brian Kerr and walked out “similar to the way Roy Keane did with Mick McCarthy”. It was the first time he decided he did not want to play for his country again.
“Then Steve Staunton called me into the full squad after I had broken into the City first team, and that felt like a massive achievement. So I had to go. I had the first game against Sweden and I was thinking, ’this is great’. But as the squads went on, my heart wasn’t in it. I just didn’t want to do it. I had a young family and they meant more to me than Ireland; I found it very hard to be away from them.”
He has no appetite to go over granny-gate but he does accept he made some immature mistakes.
“When all that happened, that whole affair, it was clearly the wrong terms to leave but I knew that was just the end. It was clearly not ideal, but since then my life has gone really nicely. And, besides, they have done well without me. It wouldn’t be fair for me to turn up and start playing. It wouldn’t be fair to the other players.”
But surely he realises that he would go straight into the team?
“Maybe,” he shrugs.
“Or maybe they would do better without me. The style of play is different to what I like. They play a lot down the wings, longer balls. With my style I might fit in. But it’s irrelevant anyway.”
Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic manager, has insisted he has tried to persuade the country’s most talented footballer to change his mind. The player in question, however, says it was a PR stunt.
“It’s just lip service. Trapattoni rang me and asked if we could meet up at some stage. They had a game the following week against Bulgaria and I thought maybe he wants me to come to this game. But when I asked him he said ‘maybe three or four months from now’ which I thought was strange.
“I said ‘yeah, yeah, that’s fine, if you want to meet we can’. Nothing had changed in my mind, to be honest. And he was, ‘So, it’s okay if I tell the press we chatted?’ . . . I don’t think he wanted me back; it was more about him covering his back, having a press conference where he could say ‘I’ve made the effort, I’ve spoken to Stephen, blah-di-blah-di-blah.’”
It is an issue that, like Keane in 2002, has divided his country.
“I’ve had hate mail, but it doesn’t faze me. It’s all talk. People go up to my friends and say ‘why’s Stephen Ireland not playing for his country? If I ever see him I’ll do this or that to him’. But they always bottle it. I see them and they’re, ‘Oh, mate, right decision’. My family have had problems, too, but it’s nothing we can’t deal with.”
One day, he says, he would like to share his experiences with Keane and hear what the older man has to say. Like so many boys from Cork, Ireland grew up with posters of Keane plastered all over his bedroom walls. But he is his own man now. Ask him whether he would go back if Keane were to become manager he shakes his head.
“No,” he says.
“No manager would sway my decision now.”
Keane used to say the Irish set-up was biased towards players from Dublin and Ireland agrees.
“Even now, I know for a fact it’s exactly the same – they pick all the Dublin lads, one or two Cork lads, and the Cork lads are thrown on the back seat and that’s basically it.”
And the reaction in the Irish press? Does it bother him to be branded a traitor?
“Ireland’s ridiculous,” he replies.
He has come to think they would rather the national team lose.
“This is the way it is for them – they can write about a good result for only a few days but they can write for weeks on end about a bad result.”
He wants to put the record straight on another matter, too. A few years ago Ireland, losing his hair, had a weave. One rumour was that the other Irish players had pinned him down one day and tried to pull it off.
“All that stuff is ridiculous,” he says.
“Robbie Keane contacted me saying ‘a lot of us are getting bad press, getting slated, because all these stories are coming out’. He wanted me to come out and say something. But I had a great relationship with the players. Even now I have all their numbers. I’m texting Andy Keogh, Leon Best about this weekend. I get on great with them all.
“I will be watching the game and, if they get to the World Cup, I’ll wish them all the best. I’d love them to do well, but it’s no skin off my back.
“They deserve to be there. They would be the ones who got themselves there so it wouldn’t be fair for me to show up with my boots and start playing.”
“None at all.”