A supremely talented footballer, from Cork, a midfielder, head and shoulders above most of his peers, controversial, playing for one of the top clubs in the Premier League and exiled from the national side during one of its most successful periods in years. It’s almost as if we’ve been here before. I am of course referring to the curious case of Stephen “I’d rather head down to the gym than play for” Ireland. When Roy Keane was sent home from Saipan in 2002 frustration was rife with Irish football fans, but at least we knew why our best player would not be playing for our national side. With Ireland, the player that is (this could be rather confusing), however, nobody seems to be fully sure as to why he spends his international break kickboxing rather than kicking a football. Reports have ranged from him simply wishing to concentrate fully on his club career to allegations of bullying aimed at his former team-mates. Ah lads, play nice! Whatever the true reason(s), there is something very unusual about a 23-year-old actively choosing not to play for his national team.
The Manchester City man’s most recent quotes make for pretty depressing reading. He claims that he doesn’t think he’ll ever come back to the side and accuses manger Giovanni Trapattoni of being ‘arrogant’. Ah Steve, say it ain’t so. Amazingly the player was no stranger to international exile even before his first senior cap – talk about warning signs! Ireland fell out with then under-18 manager Brian Kerr after being left out of two consecutive squads. Kerr of course went on to reinvent ‘total football’ with the senior side shortly after and young Stephen was out in the cold until the FAI’s shoddy attempts at faking competence were finally abandoned altogether and the Staunton era began.
The more I think about this situation the more it seems to remind me of a marriage on the rocks. Stephen and the national team were teenage sweethearts; he first represented his country at under-15 level. It was smooth sailing for the first few years and then, under Kerr, the relationship became strained. A trial separation followed, during which time he contemplated footballing adultery with England or Italy, for whom he was also eligible to play. He decided to give things another try however and came back to Ireland’s delighted embrace. Things initially looked to be better than ever but soon the relationship reached a new low and divorce was imminent. The pair have now been apart for two years and while the player seems to have moved on, we are still left feeling empty – hoping he will come running back to us and casting jealous eyes upon his performances at City. It’s impossible to say if the two Irelands will ever be reunited in footballing matrimony; we can only hope that he will one day remember why he loved us in the first place and we can get back together before both our best years are behind us. Until then we must carry on, not happy but content at least, with our steady, reliable new midfield. It may not be much of a looker but at least we know we won’t come home one night to find it’s pulled a runner.