STEPHEN IRELAND EXCLUSIVE: Dead grandmothers, 'Daddy Dick', pink wheels... A few stories made me loo

14 March 2009 12:55
Stephen Ireland's footballing hero was born in the same Irish county and played in the same English city. His name is Roy Keane. On his recent journey from ridicule to respect, it would appear Manchester City

's midfielder has relied on some of the philosophy that ran through Keane's very soul.

'I take football very seriously,' Ireland said. 'I don't think I'm having a good enough season. I should have scored more goals, delivered more assists. I am a big believer in looking in the mirror and saying,  "Are you good enough? Did you do good enough today? Did you fight hard enough?"

'If something is not going right in a match then you need a player who can spark something off. I want that player to be me.

'It's like Keane was at Manchester United. Whenever things were getting hot and heavy for them, Keane would just get in there and hit someone hard someone like Zinedine Zidane and everyone would be like: "Look at that!" They would take their lead from that and they would be off and running. In my head, that's me. That's the person I want to be.'

As well as place of birth, Cork in the Republic of Ireland, and a philosophy, Ireland and Keane have something else in common. Both fell out with their country, or their country's football to be precise.

But while Keane's problem was the state of a World Cup training facility, Ireland's international exile came after he invented the death of two grandmothers in September 2007. So how does Ireland feel about that when he looks in the mirror?

 'I got myself into the situation  and now I have got myself  out of it. I think now I am the  person I wanted to be. The  other stuff is gone'  Ireland takes a deep breath and prepares to tell his story.

'Things happened to me that made me look ridiculous,' he responds. 'They became the main part of me and I have had to change that. Whenever I used to see my name in the paper it was: "Stephen Ireland, comma, grandmas, website, pink wheels, blah blah."

'Now I just want it to be, "Stephen Ireland did something good on the field today." I think I am close to that. I hear City fans talking and telling me how happy they are with what I do for them on the field. That's good.'

When Ireland shaves, who does he see staring back?

Is it the guy who is first pick on Mark Hughes's City team sheet and scorer of 10 important goals this season, or the young fool who lied to the FA of Ireland, went by the web page moniker 'Daddy Dick' and once drove a 4x4 with pink wheels?

'A year ago it was different,' he admitted. 'They were coming down on me hard and I deserved it. But the situation was in my own hands.

Nice wheels: Stephen Ireland in his girlfriend's customised Range Rover

'I got myself into the situation and now I have got myself out of it. I think now I am the person I wanted to be and needed to be. The other stuff is gone.'

That Ireland has chosen to speak in such detail about his life and his mistakes is a sign that he is moving on. A year ago he was a laughing stock. Now he is arguably City's most important player.

We talk, at Ireland's behest, in a private room at the Francis House Children's Hospice in Didsbury, Manchester, where I have been invited by the player to promote his charity the Stephen Ireland Foundation

. It has raised thousands of pounds for the hospice in only a year.

 'I should have told the truth.  I panicked and said there had  been a death in my family. The story had leaked and I  was right in the middle of it.  It was a nightmare' The deal offered by him is simple: The foundation receives a donation from Sportsmail and Stephen Ireland will talk frankly.

Some of the subjects are uncomfortable but he is honest company and he is as good as his word.

So let's deal with the really bad stuff first.

It's September 8, 2007 in Bratislava. Slovakia v Republic of Ireland. Forty-five minutes before kick-off. Ireland has just taken a call from his girlfriend, Jessica. She has suffered a miscarriage.

'I passed the manager Steve Staunton in the corridor and he said: "Is everything all right?",' Ireland recalled. 'That was the exact moment it all went wrong.

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'I should just have told him the truth. He is such a good person. I would have trusted him with my life. So why didn't I trust him with the truth? I don't know. I panicked and told him there had been a death in my family. I said I had to get back and he said: "OK".

'After I played in the game I took a private jet back to Manchester. Before I left I asked that the press be told it was a family matter, no more. By the time I got off the plane everybody knew or thought that my grandmother was dead. The story had leaked. It went from strength to strength and I was right in the middle of it. It was a nightmare.'

Ireland exile: The Manchester City has not been part of the national team set-up since the story over his grandmothers

The exact details of what followed are hard to ascertain. Ireland's recollection is vague, in places. But over the next 24 hours, as his country prepared for their next game without him, one lie somehow became two when it emerged his maternal grandmother Patricia Tallon was alive and well.

Ireland's subsequent claim that it was his other grandmother, Brenda Kitchener, who had passed away led only to ridicule, reprimand, an apology to the FAI and an international exile that the 22-year-old seems reluctant to end.

'I actually rang my nan and she was laughing,' he said. 'But when it emerged that she was alive then everything just spiralled and got much worse.

'All of a sudden I found myself in a big hole and I couldn't get out of it. There were so many stories out there and when I got to the end of the season I just realised that I had to somehow draw a line under it all.'

 'Iwent up to the hills with a   martial arts expert, training  from 7 to 11am for the whole  summer. Icame back super  fit and wanted to be No 1'  Told here for the first time in detail, it's a remarkable tale of a young man in the grip of panic.

But, for Ireland, it wasn't the lowest point of his football career.

May 11, 2008, on the A1 between Middlesbrough and Manchester. He is in his girlfriend's car. 'It was the last day of the season and we had lost 8-1 at Boro,' he remembers. 'I didn't get the team bus. I got Jessica to drive me home and I thought to myself: "This can't carry on. My career and my reputation are not right."

'After that game we didn't even get a b******ing. I was so depressed at seeing that people didn't really care. People were laughing. It was the worst moment of all for me.

'I decided that wasn't a route I was going down. I didn't want to live my life travelling home from big defeats with a smile on my face. I just felt like I had to change something after everything that had happened. So, the next day I started training. I went up to the hills in Glossop with a martial arts expert, training from 7 to 11am. I dedicated my whole summer to working with this guy.

Personal visit: Ireland at the Francis House Hospice with eight-year-old Liora Abraham

'I came back super fit and wanted to be number one in the team.'

Walking through the remarkable Francis House complex with Ireland last week, it was impossible not to be struck by his relaxed, comfortable manner. He is taller than he looks on the field. He carries the air of confidence.

But the thing that really makes some of his mistakes so astounding is his background, and the desire it took to arrive in the Barclays Premier League in the first place.

A county hurling and gaelic football player, he nevertheless found happiness with a round ball at his feet. Like Keane, he played for the Cobh Ramblers club as a teenager and received invitations for trials from 22 British clubs when he was only 12.

'But I had this problem on my knee,' he said. 'My muscles were outgrowing my bones. If my trousers rubbed against it or if I knocked it against a table I would be in agony, in bed for days. But I still played.

'The physios told me to take three months off but I just couldn't. I wanted to get to England to play football. I was having trials every weekend, always a different team. I was exhausted. I went to 11 trials of the 22. I went to Celtic but my knee was so bad I couldn't play. I just walked round for four days.

City slicker: Ireland scores against Hull in November

'Eventually City just felt like the right club. I was supposed to come when I was 17 but came at 15 to get a head start. But still the knee problem was there, nagging at me, stopping me.

'I had it for the first two or three years I was at City. I would have two weeks in the club then a month out. The staff at the academy said they were going to wrap me up in cotton wool and I hardly played for the first two years. It turned out to be the best thing to do.'

 'The car was Jessica's. I only  drove it once. Just my luck it  was photographed and  ended up in the paper'  Needing £2million of charitable funding a year just to keep going, Francis House Children's Hospice is a refuge for terminally-ill children and their families.

Providing medical, educational and recreational assistance for the children, it is an inspiring environment. Ultimately, however, it is a place where many youngsters come to die. Ireland is at ease around them.

'When I first came I knew this was the charity I wanted to help,' explained Ireland, a father of three. 'The kids are amazing. It's a sad place but a family place. All I do is try to help. I had kids young and it's heartbreaking when you hear these stories. But I am relaxed here.'

Ireland raises money by auctioning signed shirts from team-mates and opponents through his website. Many of the game's big names have already helped. This summer he is planning a 24-hour golf tournament in Marbella.

Web star: Ireland with his girlfriend Jessica in a photo published on his bebo page

'I didn't start it looking for publicity but now I just want to push it as far as I can,' he added.

That Ireland has been able to call on the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Robinho for help with his charity says much for his standing in football.

A year ago, talk of Ireland moving in such company would have been laughed out of Eastlands. Not any more.

But there are still other things for us to address.

What was that 'Daddy Dick' website about? And what about the pink wheels?

'The car was Jessica's,' Ireland said with a huge grin. 'I only drove it once. Just my luck it was photographed and ended up in the News of the World. We sold it soon after as someone scraped a key down it.

'And the web page? That was one of my best friends from home. He moved to Australia and said it was a way we could keep in touch.

'I didn't know how to start or what to do so he edited the whole thing. He gave me that stupid name and under the heading: "What do I hate?" he wrote: "Football". It was all just sarcastic. It was just young lads messing around. And then it got into the press. It was just the timing. I was sitting there at home thinking: "What next?"

 'I read in the press that  Trapattoni and Liam Brady  have said they have  contacted me. Well, they  haven't. That's all I can say'  Happily for Ireland, there has been only good news since that period in his life when the bad publicity threatened to sweep him towards oblivion.

Even the hate mail from football fans in Ireland has ceased, even if he is still reluctant to consider a return for his country.

'When I first got in to the Irish squad when I was 17 I was so proud,' he reflected. 'It's not that I am not patriotic and I know much of this is my fault. But it's sad the way some people still want to criticise me. I know the Irish thing will take longer to fix. I just think I am quite happy as I am right now.

'I read in the press that (Giovanni) Trapattoni and Liam Brady have said they have contacted me. Well, they haven't. That's all I can say. Never say never, though.'

Chelsea away beckons for City on Saturday. The club's most-picked player will be in the team. He has regrets but he is happy and he knows now where life is heading.

Pants: Ireland drops his shorts after scoring against Sunderland last season

And there will be more mischief, too.

The 'Superman' pants he dropped his shorts to reveal last season have not gone away.

'You can't expect fans to sing your song if you don't deserve it,' he said, back in Keane-mode. 'A game lasts 90 minutes. It's not a big ask to work hard, is it? It's not a sacrifice for the fans and for the jersey and for your wages. The fans tell you the truth. They can be brutal.

'They have been brutal with me in the past but I accept that. I deserved it. I had an ambition to turn it round and thank God I have. I couldn't have coped much longer.

'The fans call me Superman now. It's brilliant. I just did that stunt with the pants to say to people: "I may have come through some s**t but look where I am now." The name has caught on so I will do it again at some stage to keep it going. Definitely.

'I could do it at Old Trafford, that would be quality.'

 To donate to the Stephen Ireland Foundation or to learn more about Francis House Children's Hospice, go to www.stephenireland.com

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Source: Daily_Mail