Training with Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes has convinced Stephen Ireland to pursue a return to football, and redemption for his Republic of Ireland career.
United's €55m January signing moved into a house three doors down from Ireland's Manchester home and the Cobh-native says Fernandes not only recognised him but looked up to Ireland as a child.
“He told me that, as a kid, he had a poster of me,” Ireland told The Athletic.
“He said that when he played Football Manager he always signed me. I was like, ‘You had me on a poster? And, seriously, you sign me for Football Manager?’ I mean, how weird is that?”
Ireland, now 33 and without a club since leaving Bolton in December 2018, says he has been training “like an absolute maniac”. His sessions with Fernandes and Fred, another big-money United signing, have left him in no doubt that he can return.
“It has made me think, ‘God, there isn’t much of a difference’. I really believe I have three or four years left in me, minimum. Physically, I feel 27 or 28. I just want to get motoring again because there is so much more to come out of me.
“I feel if I went to League One or the Championship, I can really give it a good go. I will give it everything. I’ve broken bones before and I’m willing to break bones again. I’m not ready to stop. I’m going back because I have so much unfinished business.”
A star-studded weekly five-a-side with the likes of Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown, and Joleon Lescott had also been helping him keep in shape until lockdown hit, as well as boosting his confidence with tales of Alex Ferguson detailing Fletcher to man-mark Ireland at all times.
“What I like is when I hear feedback from the United guys and they say, ‘Every time we played City and we had team meetings, he (Alex Ferguson) would only talk about you’. They say Ferguson used to tell them I was the only one to worry about. It was, ‘Man-mark Ireland, stop Ireland — wherever he goes, follow him’. I’d have Darren Fletcher following me the whole match.”
Ireland says he has been speaking to various clubs, in England and abroad, and is also targeting a return to the national team 13 years on from the 'Grannygate' saga which ended his international career after four goals in six caps.
The dream would be: get back with a club, smash it, go back to Ireland, and undo all that scenario.
Ireland last year spoke about raising two kids as a single parent in his late teens, while on £85-a-week, and how that led him into the lie about his grandmothers dying. Ireland now says he received death threats over the incident.
“It came down to prioritising. Can I leave my kids for two weeks to play for Ireland? As much as I’d loved to have done that, I couldn’t. I was away at matches, stressed out of my head because of my kids. I had no support. I had to pick option A or option B. But of course, I wish things could have been different.
“Why wouldn’t I want to play for my country 150 times? Why wouldn’t I want to be an Irish hero? Who would turn their nose up at that? Why would it ever be my agenda to be disliked in Ireland?
I had death threats, I had all sorts. Christ, I didn’t want to leave the way I did. I didn’t want to be disliked in my own country but it came out of circumstances which were tough.
“I genuinely didn’t think it would get into the press. I didn’t realise the onslaught because I didn’t know how big I was.”
His Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini later fell out with Ireland, partly, he says, because of his refusal to return to international football under Giovanni Trapattoni.
“They were best mates. Mancini kept saying to me, ‘Go back, go back. You need to go back to play’. I said to him, ‘Right now, I’m not even playing for Man City. That has to be my focus’ but he wouldn’t let up.
“I was always first to team meetings because I was so good with timekeeping. I’d walk into the room and sometimes, it was only me and him there. I’d think, ‘Oh shit!’ — I knew what was coming. We might have a really important game the next day but he wouldn’t stop talking about me going back to Ireland. In the end, I said, ‘Look, get Trapattoni over here, we’ll sit down, have a coffee and try to hammer it out together’. It never happened though.”
The duo did, in fact, meet to discuss a return to international football, with Ireland, in 2011, calling Trapattoni “the most arrogant man” he had ever met.