Stephen v Steven - a feast to savour

MANCHESTER CITY V ASTON VILLA. Future bright as local talent is given a chance to impress in the Premiership
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The Independent Football

Amid the gloom of their League Cup defeat by Doncaster, Manchester City fans found one sliver of comfort: an impressive full debut from Stephen Ireland. Since then, what appeared a small mercy has turned out to be quite a sizeable one, and, against Aston Villa tomorrow night, the 19-year-old midfielder is likely to be making his fourth successive Premiership start.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his emergence, though, is the fact that City fans are becoming accustomed to the arrival of gifted teenagers: Ireland is the 17th player to have graduated from City's academy to the first team since its foundation in 1998. It was the former Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Fuad Muzurovic who noted that "generations come and generations go, and all you can do is make sure the soil in which you cast your seeds is as fertile as possible". They may have been fortunate with the raw materials they have had to work with, but the earth at Platt Lane is indisputably bountiful.

Talk of great generations in Manchester inevitably raises the spectre of the United side of the Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes et al, and, while nobody is talking of this City in quite those terms, there is still a genuine excitement about the blue half of Manchester. Even if he is only the latest in a line of prodigies, Ireland, who signed a four-year contract extension this week, is part of that.

His first Premiership start came against Everton four weeks ago, his ability to create space and slip balls through for Andy Cole and Darius Vassell earning him a debut man-of-the-match award. He was not much less influential in the victory over West Ham a fortnight ago. "Our one concern was that he was very slight," said Dennis Tueart, the former England midfielder who is now City's director with responsibility for their academy. "But he stayed the two hours at Doncaster, which was the one good thing to come out of that game. He's been on a weights programme and he's been training with the first team for over a year, and we're starting to see results."

There has also been a mental development. Pearce described Ireland as being "worried sick" when named as a substitute last season, but there has been no sign of such nerves in his recent displays.

That new self-assurance manifested itself three years ago in a spat with Brian Kerr, then the Republic of Ireland Under-17 coach, with Ireland insisting he would not represent his country so long as Kerr was part of the set-up. That, Tueart believes, is a good thing. "It shows he has his own mind," he said.

To the delight of trivia buffs desperate for a player named after a country actually to play for it - unlike Mike England, Alan Brazil and, er, Simon Garner - with Kerr gone, the way is clear for Ireland to be selected for the country of his birth, although he is also qualified to play for England and Italy.

The question now is his best position. Impressive as he has been in central midfield, Ireland lists Dennis Bergkamp as a hero and has said that he "would love to achieve even half of what Ali Benarbia (below) or Eyal Berkovic did for City", and he regularly played as a second striker for the youth side. Tueart rates him as a finisher, although the academy director, Jim Cassell, has noted that his goals tended to be spectacular rather than frequent. At the moment, anyway, a preference for getting forward is perhaps an advantage.

"The onus has fallen on the midfield for a few goals because we've lost Shaun Wright-Phillips, who was our joint top-scorer last season," said Joey Barton, another academy graduate. "The kids have given everybody a lift. But it's dog eat dog, and they have to treat every training session as a cup final."

It is 25 years since City have been involved in a genuine cup final; but with this crop, the next one might not be far away. Although not, of course, in this season's League Cup.

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