For a clue as to which Manchester City player has looked Robinho hard and unflinchingly in the eye this week and searched for evidence that he is really has the spirit for City's journey, cast your mind back to 11 May 2008 and the 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough which marked the end of Sven Goran Eriksson's reign.
However bad that afternoon might have been for Eriksson, humiliated and on his way to a certain sacking by owner Thaksin Shinawatra, pales by comparison with how it was for Stephen Ireland. The 23-year-old recalled yesterday how he was close to tears on the Riverside pitch as he watched his team-mates capitulate so listlessly to such undistinguished names as Afonso Alves and Fabio Rochemback. When the banter in the City showers later revealed a willingness to accept what had just taken place outside, Ireland refused to board the team coach home.
"I was just so angry," he said. "Goals were just flying in and it was like a training game but no one was that bothered. There were other players out there as well as me and I was thinking 'This is ridiculous. Am I the only one who's upset?' At the end everyone was shaking hands and saying 'See you after the summer, have a good summer' and I was thinking 'This is bizarre. I don't want to be in these changing rooms.' I didn't even travel back with the players. I just didn't want them to be on the same bus. My girlfriend picked me up in Middlesbrough and we went home. I remember the exact moment in the car, with her pregnant, and me saying 'I can't carry on like this. I've got to do something about it for myself and for the club."
The rest is history, where Ireland is concerned. A player who had experienced his share of troubles off the pitch submitted himself to six weeks of individualised martial-arts training at a gym in Glossop, Derbyshire, clocking in at 7.30am and heading off on long-distance runs with bags on his back. He emerged as the kind of player new manager Mark Hughes had said he wanted when he first sat his players down at the Carrington training ground and, as Ireland recalled, told them: "We are going to do things differently now and either you get on board or you're going to find yourself in a hard place and it's going to be very difficult."
Ireland, now a totem of the rigour instilled into City by Hughes, has spared no feelings when it comes to representatives of the old days at a club which, as the manager is fond of saying, had long lacked a "winning mentality". Ireland first revealed his true feelings about Elano Blumer a few months back and yesterday he offered more enlightenment on what a malevolent force the Brazilian proved to be in a difficult first year for Hughes. "For a time there was all this talk about Elano and players like that," Ireland said. "They were getting all the credit but I didn't think they had done enough to earn that credit. Some people didn't change. Some players were 28 or 29 and it was all new to them, this new regime. How can you get to that age and not have a regime of being professional?"
Last season was a battle of wills between the manager and the faction which resisted him. "That's why he's needed time. That's why last year he was fighting his corner all the time. Not many players were pulling in the right direction." Ireland skirts around naming Elano, Darius Vassell or Dietmar Hamann: "the kind of players who are not here now so clearly the players were not more important than the gaffer."
The scrutiny is no less intense within. Ireland said earlier this year that last summer's regime was borne of the realisation there would be "one game in 15 where I would do well," which was driving him "insane". It was actually worse than that, he revealed yesterday. Before Hughes arrived to undertake what the Irishman considers to have been his own salvation, he was being linked with lesser clubs. "There was speculation about me going to teams like Bolton and Sunderland and they're the last places I want my career to be," he says with a brutality resonant of one Roy Keane, another son of Cork – whom Ireland, incidentally, has never met. "It was a wake-up call really. I knew straight away where I wanted to live my life and play my football. I'm one of these kinds of players who live inside my head quite a lot. Certain things don't go my way I really start over-thinking things and start thinking about situations that are not really that way. I put that pressure on myself."
But it has transpired that he and Robinho, improbable future team-mates on that dark afternoon on Teesside, have found themselves among the few first-team players here at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi as City meet the owners. The Brazilian's desire to leave the club has seen him sanction the telephone calls on that subject which his representatives have placed this week. But if he does go, it will be just when he has begun to look like the sort of player Ireland would climb aboard a bus with.
Does the Brazilian fit the definition of a committed City player? Ireland was asked. "Very surprisingly, yes," he replied. And though the subject was supposed to be off limits, he wanted to elucidate. "I'm not being harsh on Elano and players like that... but them leaving has been a real blessing for Robinho because he has really come out of his shell. They all used to stay in this little clan and you didn't see much of Robinho – but now he's different. Since he came back in the summer he's been a different person." Words to either pain or inspire a club which knows that the man Ireland has so carefully scrutinised may be extremely hard to keep.Reuse content