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focus on ireland

Ireland slams door shut on international return

September 3, 2009
By Gareth Maher

The debate is finally over. No more need for fans to ask when he might come back, or for journalists to write endless column inches suggesting that he could still change his mind. No, the chances of Stephen Ireland playing for his country again in the near future are dead.

GettyImagesA slightly less bald Ireland last played for his country in 2007.

After a lengthy pursuit by manager Giovanni Trapattoni and his backroom staff, the Manchester City midfielder opted not to be seduced by their advances and chose to remain wrapped up in his self-imposed international exile.

The 23-year-old gave an interview last week where he explained how a tough fitness regime is helping him to enjoy his football a lot more and that he doesn't see how international football can fit into his busy schedule. In fact, he sees no reason why he should squeeze it in.

"I'm not thinking about it [coming back for Ireland] at all," he said. "It's just my position and it feels like the best decision I ever made."

The supposed reasons why the player is reluctant to alter his decision range from the other squad members teasing him over a hairpiece he wore at the time, to the embarrassment of lying about the death of both his grandmothers in order to get back to his girlfriend, who had in fact gone through a miscarriage while he was away on international duty.

Added to that is the sour taste left by being involved in a squad that was managed poorly by Steve Staunton and heavily criticised by the media. So it is not that surprising that he does not have many fond memories of his six international caps.

Having not pulled on the green jersey since 2007, it is now highly unlikely that he will feature in the current World Cup qualifying campaign that sees Trapattoni's side occupy second place in Group 8 with three games remaining.

In many ways it is a good thing that Ireland has taken this stance. Not only will it bring an end to the speculation about a possible return, but it allows the current squad of players to focus on the last three qualifiers.

Murmurs from inside the Irish camp recently suggested that if Ireland did come back into the squad at this late stage it would upset some of those who have worked hard to put the team in a position of reaching South Africa next summer.

Then there is also the case of those who are on the fringes of the squad who feel that they would deserve a call-up ahead of someone that doesn't want to play for his country. Amongst them: Stephen McPhail (Cardiff City), Chris McCann (Burnley), Andy Reid (Sunderland) and Keith Fahey (Birmingham City).

Trapattoni, however, doesn't believe Ireland's return would cause such a fuss. He has said he would welcome the midfielder back at any time and, while he doesn't expect that to happen in the near future, he believes that the player will eventually have a change of heart on the issue.

"I know the moment I can call him and look for him and meet him, but not now, not now," stated Trapattoni. "Maybe in the future, if I continue this job with Ireland, I will try again. My door is not closed.

GettyImagesStephen Ireland scored four goals in sic internationals for the Republic or Ireland

"It's a pity because I am sure, when he is old, he can think about it and reflect upon it and say 'Why?' He will regret it. It's a pity. He is still young, but he won't know until the future, when he is an old man, what he is missing at this moment."

It is clear that Ireland would have added some much-needed creativity to the Irish midfield, although Trapattoni has created a system that works and even the Cork-born player would have had to fit into that.

Without him, the boys in green will look to the likes of Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Darron Gibson and Liam Miller to fill the central midfield roles with Whelan and Andrews expected to keep their partnership intact for the Cyprus game.

There is still hope that Blackburn Rovers' Steven Reid will recover from a long-term injury in time to feature in the October double-header against Italy and Montenegro in Dublin, but he still has some way to go in his race to regain full fitness.

So, if the Irish team are to qualify for the 2010 World Cup it will be without one of their most talented midfielders. Although if Trapattoni's team achieve that feat, then few people will be asking "Where is Stephen Ireland?"

•  Gareth Maher covers Irish football for ESPN Soccernet. Check out his website to read more of his writing.