Or, the mysterious case of the grandmother killer. But Stephen Ireland’s ever-changing excuses for pulling out of a game in Prague finally arrived at a genuine personal tragedy. Pat Daly reports

“So how did you feel when you found out you were dead?” That’s how the RTE radio host began his interview with Patricia Tallon, whose sudden demise had forced her grandson, Stephen Ireland, to withdraw from the Republic of Ireland squad on the eve of last month’s match in the Czech Republic. “Oh, it was an awful shock,” answered Tallon, who, careful readers will have deduced, wasn’t dead at all.

Tallon went on to explain that an even bigger shock was reserved for some of her elderly friends, who rang the family home in Cork to express tearfully their condolences, only for a bewildered but very much alive Patricia to answer the phone. “It was terrible for everyone, really,” said Tallon, “but it’s all been explained now… I’ve even been to the doctor and he confirmed I’m OK!” Not one of the most difficult diagnoses the doctor has ever had to make, you suspect.

Unfortunately for Ireland, the RTE journalist who was with Steve Staunton’s team in Prague is also from Cork and, upon hearing the reason for the midfielder’s departure, made some inquiries. He discovered that Tallon was alive and well, so asked the FAI what was going on. The FAI, who had just chartered a plane at a cost of €15,000 (£10,500) to get Ireland home, put the same question to the player. He explained that his girlfriend Jessica, who had originally phoned the FAI with news of Tallon’s death, had made a mistake and that it was in fact his paternal grandmother who had passed away. Cue grief among the acquaintances of Mrs Brenda Kitchener – until the sceptical FAI established that she, too, was fine.

Upon being confronted with this fact, resourceful Ireland reportedly wrote off a third grandmother – via his father’s second wife – before finally coming clean: none of his grannies had died, rather the reason he’d left was because his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage. That clarification, released through his club, Manchester City, was welcomed by the FAI, who had been mercilessly lampooned by a media who had incorrectly assumed that the mix-up was the result of yet more farcical management by them. They called the player “stupid” for lying, but expressed public support for him, while privately wondering why he hadn’t told them about the miscarriage in the first place – did he really think they wouldn’t consider that serious enough to warrant withdrawal?

He explained that grief meant he hadn’t been thinking straight. Most of the media showed compassion (though many fans used internet message boards to continue to pour scorn on the “traitor” and baselessly cast doubt on the miscarriage, as if he’d finally stumbled on an excuse the FAI couldn’t disprove). The Daily Mirror angrily denounced football’s macho dressing-room culture, saying poor Ireland felt unable to talk about the miscarriage for fear of being abused in the same way Graeme Le Saux was for supposedly being gay.

Some made knowing allusions to Ireland’s “complex” family life (his English father and Irish mother split up when he was five, leaving him to be raised by Tallon; and he himself became a father when he was just 16, and, at 21, already has two children with a woman who is not Jessica), as if to convey that he’s just a chaotic guy.

That notion gained further credence when the press discovered the player’s Bebo page, which he, rather naively, had never bothered making private. Among photos of him gazing vacantly into a web camera and entries written in text speak was one old, seemingly tongue-in-cheek comment that tabloids seized upon and proclaimed “bizarre” and “troubling”, viz: “football is shit, why did I get stuck doin it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Meanwhile, the father of Sunderland striker Anthony Stokes railed against Staunton, asking why, clearly, he bore a grudge still against Stokes for failing to turn up for August’s Under-21 match against Germany because he was injured. Yes, said Mr Stokes, Anthony should have informed the FAI, but he had already explained that he thought the club would do that – he was a young man guilty of naivety, just like Ireland.

What Mr Stokes missed is that the reason his son was overlooked by the senior team is because he’s not (at least not yet) good enough. Ireland, by contrast, scored the winner against San Marino and equalised in Slovakia, thereby saving the manager’s job. In retrospect, Staunton is perhaps the only person in the country who’s grateful for that.

From WSC 249 November 2007

 

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