Stephen’s Stoke deal paves way for Ireland comeback
Corkman watched by Martin O’Neill at the weekend and may now make summer squad
Stephen Ireland of Stoke City battles with Yoan Gouffran of Newcastle United during the Barclays Premier League match. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Stoke City midfielder Stephen Ireland has taken what looks likely to prove to be another significant step towards an international return by signing a three- year deal with the Premier League club.
The Corkman, who hasn’t played for the Republic of Ireland since September 2007, when he famously departed from the squad while it was in Slovakia, had said at the start of the season that he was interested in returning but that his priority was to sort out his future at club level.
Current Ireland manager Martin O’Neill acknowledged that made sense and suggested he was interested in recalling the 27 year-old once he was playing regularly and well for his club and was happy to return.
Ireland initially moved to Stoke to play under his former manager at Manchester City, Mark Hughes, on a loan deal from Aston Villa back in August. The move was made permanent in January when he severed his links with the Birmingham club but his contract was not extended and so he faced the prospect of being a free agent in the summer until agreeing this new deal.
Though he hasn’t quite recaptured the form he showed under Hughes a few seasons back, Ireland has looked to be playing with a good deal more confidence in this campaign and has been a fairly consistently strong performer for Stoke, making 25 appearances to date in all competitions and scoring three goals, his best tally since leaving City.
The midfielder says that after a few difficult seasons at Aston Villa, he has been helped by the faith shown in him since he moved to the Britannia stadium.
“It’s important for every player to feel wanted and to be a part of a family and I haven’t had that for a long, long time,” he said in an interview with the club’s website yesterday.
“Thankfully I have felt that warmth here at Stoke.
“I couldn’t really be in a better place than I am at the moment. For that, I have to thank the gaffer immensely because he is the main reason why I came here in the first instance, and of course, he is a big factor in why I am delighted to agree this new deal now.”
O’Neill was at the Britannia at the weekend to see Ireland in action and the midfielder played 66 minutes of the club’s 1-0 win over another of his former clubs, Newcastle United.
It now seems increasingly likely that he will be recalled by the northerner for the end of season friendly games against Turkey, Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal.