Speaking in a press conference in America to promote their summer tour, Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed he is only looking to sign one more player this summer. Names like Franck Ribery, David Villa, David Silva, Angel Di Maria, Yaya Toure and Lassana Diarra have all been bandied about in a manner befitting the covetous nature of transfer window spending, and that will continue to happen, but Manchester United would be better off signing someone else: Stephen Ireland.
They lost the league by a point and were desperately unlucky not to make it through their Champions League tie with Bayern Munich – their late season form sparked by the emergence of Nani as a consistent and potent threat, the reliability of Antonia Valencia on the opposite flank, and Wayne Rooney’s conversion from free-roaming forward to free-scoring striker. All of which bodes well for next year, but in truth, they were sorely lacking creativity and goals from center midfield.
Paul Scholes is still passing the ball well enough to have Fabio Capello attempting to inveigle him out of retirement, and Darren Fletcher is a very valuable player, particularly in crunch clashes, but elsewhere, there is not a great deal of thrust. Darron Gibson has a good eye for goal but still evinces a rawness in possesion and passing, Michael Carrick has regressed since a confidence knocking display against Barcelona in the Champions League final, and Anderson, well Anderson has suffered a crisis of identity at the club.
Cast your minds back to the summer of 2001. Claudio Ranieri had just sanctioned an £11 million transfer deal for Frank Lampard from West Ham. A transfer fee that seemed exorbitant for a player of his ability. So familiar are we, with the excellence of the Chelsea man, that it seems strange to remember a time when Frank Lampard was not the Frank Lampard he is now.
At West Ham he displayed a proclivity for goal scoring. In the season before Chelsea signed him, he scored 14 goals in all competitions, but in other areas of his game, notably his ball retention, tackling, positional play and passing, he was short of the standard you would expect of a top class premier league player, let alone an international one.
Ranieri’s genius was in spotting that Lampard had the attitude and ability to significantly improve these aspects of his game, and he coached him so well that Chelsea now have a player who has proven himself among the most valuable ever in the Premier League pantheon.
Alongside Steven Gerrard, he continued a trend started in the 1990’s by Paul Scholes of midfielders contributing upwards of 15 goals a season. Lampard has gone on to score more than twenty for his club for the last five years (it would have been six had he not only managed a paltry nineteen in 2004/05). To put that in context, not even Wayne Rooney has scored more than twenty goals in five straight seasons.
It’s no easy feat, and very few midfielders, well, almost none, are capable, but Stephen Ireland has the potential to not just be the next Frank Lampard, but showcase an attacking élan above and beyond the prolific Chelsea man.
He has had a strange year, affected by the signing of Gareth Barry, and Manchester City’s new adherence to a formation involving two wingers and two centre forwards, a system that does not necessarily allow room for the kind of roving attacking midfielder he has become. Last year he was the standout performer in that Manchester City team, scoring thirteen goals and contributing numerous assists. This year he has barely played and only scored a retrograde three times.
Mancini, I suspect, does not know what he has on his hands. Vast amounts of money and short termism often go hand in hand, but instead of looking to lavish money on some other central midfielder, simultaneously eroding team spirit and wasting talent already at the club, they should look to coach and show faith in players like the Irish maverick. De Jong covers so much ground that Ireland, with the right coaching, is surely a more potent force and a better long term bet in midfield than Gareth Barry. Yet you get the feeling Ireland’s natural attacking instincts are curbed under the Italians obsession with tactical positioning.
Which is a shame, because Ireland has natural talent in abundance; many of his finishes are extremely classy and evince a wonderful technique, he is two-footed, his first touch is superb, and he has a lot of natural flair and creativity wrapped up in a style of play that is very hard to come by. He can play cute passes and score cuter goals, and is the sort of person, one suspects, who would thrive on a stage like the Champions League.
All he needs is an improved work rate, slightly better ball retention under pressure, and, you get the impression, a loving arm around his shoulder. His refusal to play for his country and at times, puerile behavior, suggests he is a difficult character to deal with. But the very best creative players usually are. He needs his own Claudio Ranieiri or a manager like Alex Ferguson to give him not only the requisite discipline of attitude, but the free reign on the pitch he needs to become the dynamic force from midfield that United are sorely lacking. And any club manager, particularly Alex Ferguson, would be happy to have a talented player who doesn’t get injured on international duty.
It was always going to be the case that there are some high profile names leaving Manchester City, and every club from Villa upwards, with the exception of Chelsea and perhaps Arsenal, should be looking carefully at the 23 year old’s situation. He’s reportedly good friends with Richard Dunne at Villa, and would be a fantastic signing for Martin O’Neill and his team. Liverpool too, would do well to acquire his services. It appears from comments made by the player, and furthermore, by the club, that Ireland is criminally undervalued by Manchester City, and if Fergie misses a move that could help his side regain the League title, another team could benefit if they stumped up what will, in hindsight, almost certainly seem a paltry fee of around £10 million for his services.