ABOUT a year ago, Stephen Ireland was put up for group interview at Manchester City in advance of one of the club's Premier League games. The Sunday Tribune was all set to travel to the club's training ground on the outskirts of the city to ask the boy from Cobh a question or two until a call came through from the club's press office the afternoon before the interview was due to take place. The message from City's PR department was pretty clear: Ireland would not do the group interview if there was an Irish journalist present. No amount of persuasion could change the matter. Ireland simply didn't want to talk to any Irish media, no matter who they were or what their motives. It wasn't going to happen.
Fast forward 12 months and it is happening. Stephen Ireland is talking to a group of journalists and he doesn't seem one bit worried about their nationality, or indeed accents. In fact, there are firm handshakes at the beginning and end of the questioning and eye-contact throughout. Indeed, if there's a theme to his public bow as an Aston Villa player, it's that his protracted transfer from Manchester City is a chance, in all aspects of his life, to wipe the slate clean and change the perception that people have of him. For example, two dozen journalists at Villa's Bodymoor Heath training ground on Friday nearly choked when Ireland, the man who spent £100,000 on a fish tank for his home and £264,000 on a personalised Bentley for his girlfriend Jessica, scolded the young players at Manchester City for being obsessed with the £10,000 watches and other such trappings. As he sits and talks in his Marlon Brando t-shirt, both his ears are adorned with sparkling stud earrings, while outside in the car park his black-and-white Bentley even manages to look ostentatious parked beside the motors of other footballers. Yet despite the contradictions, there is a sincerity about his desire to start afresh and change perceptions that is difficult to ignore.
Part of the evidence of an emerging maturity comes when it is suggested to him that the public wouldn't think how they do about him if he behaved differently. You know, if he didn't go about throwing six-figure sums on material goods, or pull-down his shorts on the pitch to reveal Superman boxers, or indeed invent the death of two Grannies to get out of an international football fixture. But the strange thing is, Ireland agrees. And not once, but on a number of different occasions. These are not quite admissions that he has been at fault in the past, that everything he has done has been wrong, but he now seems to recognise that his poor public image is completely of his own making. Take the example of the hate-mail he received from Irish 'supporters' after his exit from international football. "There was a lot of personal stuff, family stuff," he says. "Lots of stuff going on near my house as well which wasn't nice. But I brought it upon myself, I blame myself." Or his words, later in the interview: "I brought on myself the negative press I've received."
You can still see, however, that his new-found desire to be responsible for his actions clashes with some of his stubbornly held beliefs, like his meeting with Giovanni Trapattoni when the Italian first became Irish manager. "It's a bit bizarre really," he says of their tete-a-tete. "From the first time I met him in a hotel with Liam Brady and [Marco] Tardelli, the conversation was really strange and bizarre. We sat there face to face but we didn't really talk much because he didn't speak much English so Liam Brady had to translate. I'm not sure he was that keen on me. The more and more he saw me, the more he probably was but at the start he was probably getting some hassle to bring me back but I don't think he knew a lot about me or was that keen on me as a player. As time has gone on, he seems more desperate to get me back than the first time I met him. There were instances in our conversation that were strange. He didn't appear too keen." But all that said, later in the interview he changes tack and starts to backtrack, almost as though he realises how his words will look. "He [Trapattoni] didn't know who I was, he didn't know a lot about me. I think Irish fans were saying when he took over to try and get him back. But I didn't make my decision based on that. It's not Trapattoni's fault. It's no one's fault but my own. If I want to go back, he told me the door was open but I guess I'll take the blame on that."
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The one reason for Ireland's behaviour at the time of "Grannygate" that actually made any sense was that the player, 21 at the time, was actually homesick. It's a theory that makes even more sense with his words now. "I never had a problem with international games, I loved the buzz around the games, seeing all the fans when I was on the bus, that kind of thing," he says. "It was the nine or 10 days before the game I didn't enjoy. I only played six games. After my first one I knew it wasn't for me, I knew I couldn't deal with it."
He puts the fault for that inability to settle into the Irish squad firmly at the hands of the FAI. "I think it was all down to the treatment I got as a kid," he says. "The FAI never looked after the lads outside of Dublin. Even now, I was looking at the squads underage and I think 98 per cent of them are from Dublin. It was exactly the same way when I was growing up. We didn't get looked after. I used to leave at 6.30 to get the train. I'd get there at 11 o'clock, when I was 13 or 14, and I'd have to make my own way from the train station to the training complex. You just weren't treated really well. I can't see how that's changed with the research I've been doing. I always felt it was a big graft to go and play in squads."
His inability to be comfortable away from home for too long is backed up by the admission that he isn't a confident sort – "I haven't got much self-confidence or self -belief which is something I need to work on," he says – and the switch to Villa is clearly viewed as an opportunity to build his self-worth and forget the past. "It's a fresh new start for me and my family when we move down here," he says. "I gave a lot of people easy reasons to judge me but I think I had a good enough bond with the fans at Manchester City and the club and stuff like that. Moving to Villa, I know I have to have four or five years at the top of my game. I really have to flourish. I want to retire with no regrets, with no 'effing and blinding. The least I can do now is put my body on the line, week in week out."
Before he departs, the conversation inevitably turns back to the prospect of him pulling on the green shirt again: would he consider playing for Ireland with a different manager in charge? "I haven't really been getting on well with Italians recently," he laughs. "I'm not too sure to be honest. I really don't know. I have nothing against Trapattoni whatsoever. I have nothing against the next manager that comes in. I had a good understanding with Steve Staunton, he was such a nice guy. Even now we're still good friends. No matter who has the job, or whatever happens it's out of my hands. My decision's already made."