Stephen Ireland: Manchester City's Very Own Superman
Amidst the glitz and glamour, speculation and excitement, and the almost daily transfer fact and faction that appears to be commonplace at the City of Manchester Stadium these days, there is one player who is very quietly, but effectively, going about his business.
That man is Stephen Ireland.
On 22nd November I visited the City of Manchester stadium to watch my team Arsenal take on the Premiership's newest billionaires, Manchester City. The next ninety minutes as an Arsenal fan were very disappointing.
But one City player that day distracted my attention away from my own team's failings, and you know what? He wasn't even Brazilian!
Stephen Ireland put in a performance which deserved far more credit than it actually received. Aside from his goal, which defensive errors aside was actually a wonderful instinctive finish, Ireland played the game like a man possessed—charging round the field after every second ball.
While his determined breaking runs from midfield wreaked havoc with the Arsenal team time and time again, he still retained that wonderfully skillful and intelligent play-making edge that marked him out as a prospect upon his debut for Manchester City.
Stephen Ireland is a player who I must confess I've always rather admired. I remember being impressed when I first saw him play for Manchester City, he had a wonderful touch and poise that impressed me in one so young.
He looked a little lightweight, but he was inventive and creative, qualities which City's midfield were lacking at the time, and I felt he could really go on and prove himself to be a good player at the highest level.
Since then, perhaps his development has not been as smooth as the player himself would have probably liked. Certainly the fallout of Granny-gate, and the incident with him dropping his shorts (revealing a fetching pair of superman boxer shorts which the City fans still sing about-hence his nickname) whilst celebrating a goal last season, which though humorous, gave the impression not of a maturing young player but rather an impetuous youth still messing around on the football pitch.
But this season has certainly been the making of him, perhaps chastened by the criticisms of last season, and the near prospect of the club selling him on to Sunderland no less, Ireland has remodelled himself, and his game, and made himself an invaluable player for City.
Ireland spent this summer working hard with a new training regime, beginning his pre-season earlier than the rest of the City players. He worked more on building up the physical side of his game, doing weights, working with a martial arts trainer and sprinting up hills, all of which have combined to make him physically stronger and in a sense toughen him up.
The results, have perhaps exceed even the player's own expectations. Ireland has been a revelation for Manchester City, scoring six goals, including a brace against Hull City, and has arguably been the club's standout performer—quite an achievement with Robinho in the same team.
The new Ireland melds brain with brawn, maintaining his natural ability, flair, and creativity with a physicality that enables him to perform more effectively. Ireland's pace has quickened, and his stamina improved, giving him the speed and energy by which he can drive from box to box for ninety minutes.
Also he has been far more cute in timing his runs into the box, which has allowed him to get into goalscoring positions on a more regular basis—he has two more goals already this season than he had the whole of last season, illustrating how much more effective this new Ireland is compared with last season.
So what next for Ireland?
The challenge for him will undoubtedly be maintaining his wonderful form, and with more transfer activity likely in January at Manchester City, he'll be under increasing pressure to maintain his place.
But should he continue his startling rate of progress then this news should not worry him, as he can look forward to a place in the City team for some time yet.
Because, like the comic book hero which the Manchester City fans have affectionately labelled him, Stephen Ireland is really starting to fly.
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