In a somewhat surprising transfer deadline-day deal, Stoke boss Mark Hughes snapped up midfielder Stephen Ireland on a season-long loan from Aston Villa. The 27-year-old is the fifth new arrival at the Britannia this term and follows Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa, Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi to the club as Hughes looks to restructure the Potters’ playing approach after succeeding Tony Pulis over the summer:
Speaking to the club’s official website, the Stoke Chief Executive Tony Scholes revealed the player’s previous performances under Hughes at the Etihad persuaded the Potters boss to acquire his services:
“Stephen is a player that Mark knows really well and when the opportunity arose he was keen to add him to his midfield and attacking options. Arguably the most successful period of Stephen’s career to date was when he played for Mark at Manchester City and we hope that he can rediscover that form.”
A product of the Man City youth academy, Ireland joined the club at the age of 15 back in August 2001. The midfielder made his debut during the 2004/05 season but took his time to make an impact, producing a single goal and pair of assists across 47 appearances in his first couple of campaigns at the club.
After notching four goals and three assists in 33 appearances the following year, Ireland’s nine goals and nine assists in 35 league games across 2008/09 earned him City’s Player of the Year award under the guidance of Hughes but he failed to maintain his consistency. The Welshman’s dismissal in the early stages of the following season saw Ireland become a peripheral figure under Roberto Mancini and, after producing just two goals and a pair of assists, he was transferred to Aston Villa as part of the deal that took James Milner to the Etihad.
Ireland’s time in the midlands proved bitterly disappointing as his once-promising career began to fall apart. Over the next three years, he failed to convince a trio of managers and was handed a combined tally of 47 games by Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert, producing just a single goal and four assists.
With just a year left of his contract at Villa, Ireland’s switch to Stoke means he is now effectively playing for his future. Despite failing to feature this term so far, the midfielder insists he is fully match sharp and is desperate to make an impact at the Britannia:
“I’m fit and raring to go. I don’t want to be eased in and I don’t want to have to take my time; I just want to get straight in there as fast as I can. I want to participate in whatever way I can, whether that be for the full 90 minutes or whether it be coming off the bench for the final five minutes. Whatever time I get I will give it everything I have. It’s been a long time in the waiting for me so I want to get going and show everyone what I am capable of.”
To an extent, Ireland’s situation mirrors that of his manager. Hughes was also written off by many after a hugely unsuccessful stint at QPR led to his dismissal last term and the pair have plenty to prove this time out – the new Stoke manager’s tactics are steadily making an impact, however, and have now harvested three straight wins in all competitions after a narrow Gameweek 1 defeat at Liverpool.
As the Staffordshire outfit become more accustomed to their new manager’s possession-based approach, it’s clear we can no longer view them in the same way as we once did under Pulis. Hughes’ 4-4-1-1 formation could certainly favour Ireland and hand Fantasy managers an intriguing cut-price prospect if he can nail down his preferred role in “the hole” behind a lone forward, though it’s uncertain whether he’ll be immediately handed a starting berth.
Indeed, much depends on where fellow new boy Marko Arnautovic ends up. If the six foot three Austrian – classified as a midfielder across the Fantasy games – is utilised as a lone forward, then he looks the one to consider, though a shift to the right flank would likely see Jon Walters moved into the middle, thus denting Ireland’s prospects.
Coming in at a mere 4.8 in Fantasy Premier League (FPL) and 4.4 in the Sky Sports game, his lack of impact over the past few seasons means Ireland is particularly budget friendly. Fantasy managers will be understandably sceptical but if Hughes can help reignite the potential that saw him shine at the Etihad, we may have an unlikely cut-price contender on our hands.