Ireland to keep putting club before country

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The Independent Football

What is it with Stephen Ireland and Italian managers?

Neither Giovanni Trapattoni, with the Republic of Ireland, nor Roberto Mancini, at Manchester City, appears to rate him highly. Fortunately for the midfielder, his new, albeit temporary manager at Aston Villa, Kevin MacDonald, is a staunch admirer and is poised to give him a debut on his 24th birthday at Newcastle today.

MacDonald, who continues to hold the top job at Villa in what increasingly resembles an audition for a permanent role, worked with Ireland as a senior coach to Steve Staunton during the player's brief international career. It ended in a flurry of poison-pen letters three years ago after Ireland was given compassionate leave from the Republic camp before a Euro 2008 qualifier against the Czech Republic after the supposed death of his grandmother. He changed his story twice, lying each time, before admitting he had gone to his native Cork where his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage.

Ireland, who completed his protracted move to Villa as an £8 million makeweight in the £26m transfer of James Milner to City, regrets his immaturity. However, he does not view his escape from Mancini's bench as an opportunity to return to the Irish fold. "It didn't end the nicest way for me with Ireland, and if I could go back of course I'd change it," he said after training with Villa for the first time on Friday. "But it's been three years now.

"It was a difficult time for me and my family. I had a lot of bad press and hate mail, personal and family stuff. That's my own fault, of course. I've brought some of the negative publicity on myself but I'm here now and it's a fresh start. It never did really affect my football. I always took that seriously."

Ireland met Trapattoni soon after the veteran coach succeeded Staunton, although Ireland recalls the exchanges as "bizarre". He added: "I'm not sure he's too keen on me or knows much about me as a player. The situation's not his fault. It's no one's but my own. As time's gone by he seems a bit more desperate to get me back than when we met. He's said the door's open."

What about when the Republic played France in the World Cup play-off match now notorious for Thierry Henry's handball – didn't he feel he was missing out? "I sometimes think that I would have done a pass differently. I loved the buzz of the games. It's just the whole nine or 10-day build-up before matches I didn't enjoy. After my first game I just thought it wasn't for me. I've only played six times.

"I've been out so long I'm not even answering the question 'yes' or 'no' as to whether I'll go back. I think it would be easier for me if Kevin and Steve Staunton were still there, but they changed managers and that's another part of the situation. At the moment it's important for me to concentrate on Villa and get back on track. Nothing against Trapattoni whatsoever, or the next guy that comes in, but I'm happier playing in the Premier League."

His first priority is to establish himself in a Villa side that started the season with a victory over West Ham and a useful draw at Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. Ireland, with his shaved head, earrings and flamboyant style, may appear cocky yet he confesses he is looking to MacDonald to help rediscover his swagger.

"People have judged me but I haven't actually got much confidence or self-belief. That's something I need to build up here. But even in my first training session at Villa, I could feel it coming back. I'm looking forward to playing with a smile on my face. Kevin is someone who could bring it out. I've certainly got confidence in him as a coach to get the best out of me."

And as a long-term successor to Martin O'Neill? "Definitely. He's such a good man-manager; he's been good for the development of lots of players. I know now I have to have four or five years at the top of my game, so when I retire I've got no regrets."

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