Can Hughes coax Ireland back to his best?

In January 2009 Manchester City did their best to put a brave face on a massive disappointment. The new boys at football’s top table - thanks to the 2008 takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group - had grand plans for their team.

Can Hughes coax Ireland back to his best?

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September 26th, 2014

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The plans were to simply elevate Manchester City to a position as world beaters and allow them to rub shoulders with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

To do that, they made a public showing of their pursuit of AC Milan’s Kaka. On the final day of the 2008 transfer window, the Abu Dhabi owners were able to secure the purchase of Robinho and immediately send out a sign to the rest of European football that they were happy to splash the cash. Kaka, 27 at the time and seemingly in the prime of his career, was supposed to be the marquee signing of the new City side. Having won the World Player of the Year award in 2007, Kaka personified the idea of a world class signing.

Of course, it didn’t happen. Kaka refused the offer and Manchester City were left to make the best of a bad situation. Garry Cook, the infamous City administrator, accused the Italian side of “bottling” the deal and then went to insist that Kaka wouldn’t have actually got a place in Mark Hughes’ team, such was the impressive form of Stephen Ireland.

The idea of Ireland keeping Kaka out of any side is quite ridiculous and as the years have progressed, it has continued to hang over Stephen Ireland as he has struggled through his career. At the time of Cook’s quotes, Ireland was playing pretty well.

In 2008/09 Stephen Ireland scored nine goals and assisted another nine in the Barclays Premier League. Having progressed through the youth teams at the club, he was held up as an example of the club being able to mix their impressive youth structure with a wave of foreign investment that can often stunt the development of exciting players.

However, that remains Ireland’s best season in the top flight. Having started to sparkle for City at just 22, he hasn’t played more than 25 matches in any season since thanks to a combination of injuries, expensive signings at City and one or two off-the-pitch problems at Aston Villa and Newcastle.

With Stoke City and having seen the last five years sail past, Ireland may get a chance to find his roaring form once again. Ireland returned from injury to play in Tuesday’s League Cup victory over Sunderland. He did enough to please Mark Hughes, his manager at City during 2008/09, and could even make his second start of the season in Monday night’s league clash with Newcastle.

Hughes is well aware of the qualities that Stephen Ireland can bring to a team. His natural style of play – always looking to move his team forward, running beyond the forwards at times and always eager to get goals – suits what Hughes wants to do with the Potters. The former Wales manager is steadily evolving Stoke’s team and it would be unfair to compare them to Tony Pulis’ side even now.

There is more intent and more passing about the side from the Britannia Stadium than has ever been seen before.

Stephen Ireland has a chance to find his feet in the Premier League once again. He’ll never shake off the quotes about keeping Kaka out of the Manchester City side in 2009 but he can prove 2008/09 wasn’t a single season wonder.

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