Gerard Houllier is not the first manager to have a Stephen Ireland-induced headache, nor is he likely to be the last. Steve Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni and Roberto Mancini's cranial pounding were principally caused by the Corkman's off-field behaviour: he went missing-in-action on Staunton, became a stick to beat Trapattoni with during his early days in office and represented a roadblock, for a while at least, in the desire of Mancini to sign James Milner. The new Aston Villa manager's problems, however, more resemble those of Mark Hughes. The former Manchester City manager wasn't caused so much as an ounce of bother by Ireland's off-field persona during his 18 months at Eastlands but when it came to fitting the 24-year-old into his system, Hughes was forced more than once to reach for the painkillers.
Now, Houllier seems to be having the same problem. After last weekend's 1-0 defeat away to Sunderland, the Frenchman seemed flummoxed with a player he had removed from the action after 55 minutes. "I don't know Stephen Ireland well, I've only been here a month," he said in dissecting his performance. "His work-rate and attitude have been OK. He played very well against Chelsea but he looked a bit lost today. It happens to the best players – and maybe he didn't play too much at Manchester City last season." Maybe. Or maybe it's because Ireland is simply one of those players on the pitch, as he seems to be in life, who falls outside the margins of normal convention that most others seem to fit easily into.
The first draft of Houllier's plan to make the most of Ireland's talents has involved playing him in the "hole" behind a lone Villa striker. It is, in theory, the best place for this technically talented and intuitive footballer to go about his business but in the game against Sunderland, the Chelsea fixture to a lesser degree, and Wednesday night's Carling Cup game against Burnley, it just hasn't worked. Houllier had his shepherd's crook out after 55 minutes last weekend at the Stadium of Light and during the week, Ireland only lasted four minutes longer before he was replaced by Emile Heskey.
The player's statistics fill in the reasoning behind those substitutions. Against Chelsea, Sunderland and Burnley – the three games where Houllier has started the player since he took over – Ireland has touched the ball an average of 15 times. That's, roughly, once every four minutes. Of course those touches might, in theory, have been incredibly influential but the reality is, they haven't been. Ireland has had to drop deep, or pull wide, to receive the ball, which makes a complete mockery of him playing off the front man in the first place.
It is interesting to look back at where Kevin MacDonald played Ireland in the two games he had the Cork native available to him. Against both Newcastle and Bolton, Ireland played as part of a twosome alongside Stiliyan Petrov in central midfield. It is, as the player told the Sunday Tribune in an interview in August, where Ireland himself prefers to play. He views himself as a "box-to-box" midfielder, capable of dousing potential fires in his own half as well as creating and scoring chances up the other end. The problem is he doesn't appear durable enough for that role. In the games against Newcastle and Bolton, Ireland got on the ball more often than in recent games – an average of 25 times across both games to be precise – yet the end result from a Villa point of view is telling. Against Bolton at Villa Park they drew 1-1; against Newcastle at St James' Park, they were handed a 6-0 beating.
At City last season, Hughes wrestled with the same problem. In the early season games against Blackburn, Wolves and Portsmouth, he paired Ireland alongside Gareth Barry in a two-man central midfield partnership. But when the time came for City to face the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, he drafted Nigel de Jong in alongside the pair to offer his side greater solidity. Or, to put it another way, he selected the Dutchman in a midfield trio because he didn't believe Ireland had the physicality or defensive nous to survive against the top teams in the Premier League. Towards the end of Hughes's reign, De Jong and Barry had become his default central midfield pairing, with Ireland, if selected, being forced to play on the right or left flank. It's an option, you'd imagine, that Houllier, must now be considering.
That said, it would be wrong of Houllier to write Ireland off as either a central midfielder or a second striker just yet. Despite what the flamboyance of his material purchases might suggest, Ireland comes across as a bit of a lost soul, someone, you feel, who needs the acceptance of those around him to get through the day. He managed that at City through the quality of his football and has been trying hard to do the same thing at Villa. Too hard, perhaps. "When I came here, I put pressure on myself to go out and show what I can do," he said last week. "But the players and the staff have told me that I don't have to prove it all in one game or one training session. The goals, the assists, they will come." A start against Birmingham today, you'd suggest, just might do the trick.
In the meantime, however, as Ireland attempts to discover some kind of form and Houllier tries to locate his optimum position in the starting line-up, the potential for a falling out between the pair most definitely exits. There was a feeling listening to Ireland on the day that he was unveiled as a Villa player that the main reason he went ahead with the move was because he thought MacDonald, then caretaker, would be given the role on a permanent basis. Ireland's disappointment on that particular front won't have been helped by Houllier's opinion that the player should be playing for his country.
The Frenchman's headache has the potential to get worse.