The strange — and not-so-strange — case of Stephen Ireland. Part two of two. Part one here.
The sometimes viscerally strong feeling we can have towards a team and the copious attention it may attract don't necessarily lead to trustworthy conclusions. The commentary on the Stephen Ireland situation has, from the time of "Grannygate", been marked by an dearth of empathy. He was upbraided by most analysts for his part in the mess. Some, including Scannal contributors, have wondered aloud — disingenuously or stupidly, it's hard to tell — why he did what he did.
Where is the mystery, exactly? His girlfriend, having suffered a miscarriage while Ireland was with the national team in Slovakia, called an FAI official. Rather than tell a stranger over the phone exactly what had happened, she told him that one of Ireland's grandmothers had died. When a journalist discovered that this was untrue, Ireland said that it was actually his other granny who had snuffed it. It wasn't long before this was rumbled. But where was the sin? Here was a young couple — Ireland was barely twenty-one — undergoing a genuinely traumatic situation. He could have told Steve Staunton that his girlfriend had lied with good reason. That he did not, presumably born of a combination of a sense of honour and panic, was not just cause for the scorn and derision he received. Of course, one can only sympathise with Staunton — it can't have been fun to be so publicly embarrassed, especially at a time when he was under constant fire. But it has been discussed as if Ireland had forged a note from his mam to get off school early and then headed straight for the arcade. It has demeaned something more important than the composition of a poxy football team.
There's no need for bleeding hearts here. When I say "empathy", I don't mean going above and beyond: just the basic stuff. And it is basic, a skill we're supposed to pick up at some point on our progression to adulthood, as a facet of civility. Professional athletes may make it difficult for us, these fatted mooncalves, gated safely away from us mortals, with their youth and their offensive hubcaps, why in my day, players used to take the train to the grounds just like the fans, and you'd see them in the pub afterwards, 'cos they were normal in those days, not like today, I've been Michael Parkinson, you've been 'orrible, good night! They may be functionally similar to soap opera characters, little more than constellations of pixels imbued with whatever qualities the producers think will make us squeal with delight or displeasure. It may be difficult to see beyond all this, but that's no excuse. If you are to engage in this thing, it behoves you to do it properly, and doing it properly does not involve disengaging your brain before you start. There's passion and there's "passion". "Passion" doesn't cut it.
David Kelly's piece on Stephen Ireland is an anti-Star of Bethlehem: head away from it, magi. It is rooted in the common technique of the slighted fan of grabbing the nearest objects to hand and flinging them at the target, secure in a belief in the righteousness of the cause. As noted in part one, we are enjoined to draw conclusions from the fact that Ireland plays for "a club where accumulated wealth has corroded the value systems of so many" — as if City were unique in their wealth, as if it is inherently corrupting to the point where a player's association with the club is evidence enough for denouncement. As if, of course, some are blessed enough to float above the sea of fire, as Shay Given seemingly is. Shay is different somehow, perhaps because he is "a devout man of faith who prays every day", a "proud son of Tir [sic] Chonaill who splashes holy water in his goalmouth before every match". Perhaps it's the years he spent at Newcastle that make him more deserving of admiration than someone irrevocably touched by the Eastlands evil. But while there may be a certain intuitive appeal in locating football purgatory at St. James' Park, it's a crude method for determining who is worthy of praise or contempt.
Kelly attacks Ireland for "utterly lacking in emotional intelligence"; yet, astonishingly, he invokes the case of Roy Keane in Saipan in an attempt at contrast. Ireland possesses "not a fraction of the intelligence portrayed by Keane". What "intelligence" means in this context is unclear. But if we're talking emotional intelligence (Kelly did raise it, after all), having a vicious row with your manager days before the start of the World Cup because you just couldn't help yourself doth not a Bodhisattva make. (This applies equally to Mick McCarthy, by the way — I'm not taking sides after all these years...) But it's all okay, because "while Keane's greatness is acknowledged for all time, Egoman's endurance has yet to be proven over a sustained length of time". So, it's simple: ability times longevity equals license to behave stupidly. Glad to know it.
All this before reckoning with the odiousness of a comparison between a purely self-indulgent (on both sides) row and a situation arising from a serious personal crisis. And this is precisely the problem. Quick though purveyors of this kind of thing are, be they professional or amateur, to identify perceived deficiencies in others, this is a fundamentally self-serving exercise. Kelly describes Ireland in terms of narcissism and vanity because it is easy to do so. It is easier to believe that all players should belong to a narrow, screamingly modest behavioural and moral middle ground and regard those beyond these strictures as undesirable than it is to acknowledge the subtleties of reality, to not blindly trust first instinct, to recognise that players and spectators may see things differently and that that's okay, to acknowledge the human nature of what they choose to watch.
Choose is an important word here. "How is the Irish football community supposed to feel" about "the bland assertion that quitting the Irish set-up was 'the best decision I ever made'", asks Kelly. But what we so often see out of habit as entertainment and a means of self-validation exists to an extent beyond this vista. The ties that bind us on the outside to those on the inside are not the sole characteristic that makes sport sport. To ignore that — that's vanity. It's rich to declare, with "a yawning shrug of indifference", that you never loved her in the first place, anyway, when you're after filling her car's petrol tank with sugar. It's rich to chastise someone for egocentricity when you yourself are practically autocolonoscopic.