Sven Goran Eriksson found a message on his desk yesterday lunchtime, informing him that Sir Bobby Robson had phoned and wanted to talk. The note did not reveal why but the Swede had a pretty good idea.
The subject on Sir Bobby's mind this week has been Stephen Ireland, a player who has excited Eriksson as much as any since he arrived in Manchester but whose decision to pull down his shorts on Monday night and reveal some natty Superman underpants, a pair of which both he and Micah Richards purchased on a joint shopping trip, has impressed neither Sir Bobby, the Republic of Ireland's football consultant, nor Don Givens, the national side's caretaker manager.
Judging by Sir Bobby's public ruminations on the Cork-born midfielder this week, he will have wanted to tell Eriksson that the player has failed to return two of his telephone calls. "We've tried talking to him but he doesn't want to know," Sir Bobby complained.
Eriksson's response yesterday afternoon would have been characteristically polite but emphatic: something along the lines of "leave him in peace". Eriksson chastised him as much as anyone when it was revealed in September that his grandmothers were in considerably better shape than he had let on: Ireland had claimed that one had died and then, when it became clear this was not true, that in fact it was the other whose funeral he had to attend, requiring him to leave the Irish squad in Slovakia. He later said that in fact his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. The lie was a "stupid" one, Eriksson said – strong words by the Swede's standards. But it is also Eriksson's view that however desperately the Republic might be in need of Ireland, the player needs time away from the Dublin set-up. "I was onto this before," Eriksson said yesterday, recalling his efforts to arbitrate between Ireland and Steve Staunton after "Grannygate". "Since then I've not even spoken to [Stephen] about it but I suppose it would be better to wait until next season. The important games start in August/September. I think it would be better to concentrate on club activities. I will inform Bobby."
Micah Richards ploughed into the pants story himself yesterday by revealing the background to what, for a man currently undergoing counselling for his mental fragility, seemed an unfathomable celebration on a cold Manchester night. "To be honest, I was supposed to do that celebration with him," Richards said. "We both bought the same pants at the same time. I wasn't playing so I could not join him – and I am quite pleased now because otherwise I would have got the same stick."
Eriksson is desperate for Ireland's skills alone to do the talking. The technical ability required to execute the first time volley from Darius Vassell's cross before he dropped the shorts on Monday night was immense. But City's manager has been drawn deep into the FAI's efforts to draw the midfielder back into the set up. Steve Staunton was so anxious to establish contact with Ireland after the Irish backlash against the player led him to withdraw from the country's games against Germany and Cyprus, that he arrived in Manchester and asked Eriksson to act as a go-between. Eriksson has been happy to do so. But Ireland told him that he could not face the prospect of meeting with Staunton. Eriksson declared then that a one-year break from the national set-up might be the right course of action.
This is all very familiar territory for those who have followed Ireland's career. There was a serious fall-out out with Irish coach Brian Kerr when he left Ireland out of an Irish under-18's side and then told him to watch the match in question from the stands at his beloved Cobn, where he started his career. After the Irish lost 4-0 and Kerr did not, as he had hinted, recall Ireland, the player asked to return to the Manchester City set-up and was told he would never represent the nation while Kerr was manager. Only when Steve Staunton took over, in January 2006, did Ireland get his chance.
But life may have been no easier within the new regime. There has been much talk from Dublin about taunting by team-mates over an alleged hair transplant, resulting in two team-mates pinning him to the floor and attempting to removed the "evidence". Reading's Irish full-back Stephen Hunt denies this. "There wasn't even any banter about his hair. It's grown four inches in a year. He knows that," he said.
Ireland may have repaid the £18,000 the FAI spent on a private jet to bring him home from Slovakia but headlines in the Irish press like: "Hair apparent: how did Stephen go from balding to bushy so quickly?" may lead him to conclude that an international return will never be worth the bother.
Ireland already has more than enough on his plate. Aged only 21, he has two children from a previous relationship, and quite how he ticks psychologically is anyone's guess. The thinking behind his post on the Bebo website in which dubbed himself "Daddy Dick", complained that "Football is shit" and asked "Why did I get stuck doing it?" remains a mystery. Sir Bobby revealed he understands a little about the player when he said this week that "he needs guidance and he needs counselling" but his public pronouncements criticising the player's goal celebrations and his commitment to Ireland seem curious if he really wants him back in the fold. For his approach, Givens is playing bad cop and offering less of the sympathy Staunton showed. All told, it is an unusual strategy.
Micah Richards said yesterday that the City set-up was helping Ireland through his troubles. "I know Stevie really well, after coming through the ranks with him at City, and his mates here have helped him through his problems, which are well documented," he said.
"He lives opposite me – his front door is about five seconds away from mine – and we always help each other out. People are always trying to criticise [him] but he actually has quite a strong character. For him to be putting in good performances for City, with everything he has had to deal with, shows that. At the end of the day, he is a normal human being."
Certainly, if anyone can help rehabilitate Ireland then it is Eriksson. The Swede's genuine appreciation of the player is unmistakeable in his weekly briefings and Ireland seemed to have Eriksson in mind when he spoke briefly about the difficulties his problems have presented his club, this week. "A lot of people have stood by me," he said. "Nothing can really knock me back because I've got a lot of support."
For now, City could use a little of Ireland's midfield inspiration at Portsmouth tomorrow with Michael Johnson, who has undergone groin surgery, out for up to four weeks. A goal celebration from the Irish would be very welcome at Fratton Park, Eriksson said yesterday. And what about those shorts? "I think he will keep them on, on Sunday," he replied.Reuse content