20 August ~ Stephen Ireland’s comments on arriving at Aston Villa were pretty run-of-the-mill. He’s "really excited", "looking forward to showing what he can bring to the table", "looking forward to building up a relationship with the fans" and his "number one target is to work hard for his team-mates". The only part missing from his spiel was the "I’m looking forward to working with X manager, who I’ve respected for a long time"-type quote. Ireland, of course, couldn’t practise this sort of fawning because Villa are currently managerless. While the exchange of Ireland and James Milner has been one of the summer’s more inevitable transfers, since Martin O’Neill walked out it has become far from standard fare.
Milner’s departure from Villa appeared certain since the World Cup and the fans won’t have been at all surprised that O’Neill’s departure did little to prevent the transfer going through. However, while most of them consider Stephen Ireland to be a good fit for their squad, shouldn’t they be a worried by his arrival? After all, who signed him?
Ireland is reportedly valued at around £8 million within this exchange deal. While caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald says his arrival is a "great boost" for Villa, he confesses that he hasn’t really sat down and talked to chairman Randy Lerner about the transfer. Oddly, throughout the last few days the transfer’s delay has seemed to come from Ireland negotiating a pay-off from Man City, rather than from any questions about whether or not he is wanted any more by managerless Villa. Surely, the only conclusion that can then be drawn is that it’s the Villa board who are signing Stephen Ireland.
In Madrid and Shepherds Bush they are used to their chairmen signing players with limited consent of managers. But Randy Lerner hasn’t seemed the dictatorial type until now. Since his arrival at Villa, he has introduced popular fan consultation sessions, made ticket prices relatively affordable, and generally impressed with his understated, charitable manner. Villa fans have also been pretty happy with his level of investment in players. When O’Neill left, it was widely believed that the Irishman had been unhappy with the board’s new unwillingness to continue to spend on players, but perhaps the actual reason was the board’s new desire to pick which players they bought? Perhaps O’Neill left because he didn’t want Ireland rather than because he wanted lots of other players too.
Despite bookies at one point no longer taking bets on Bob Bradley arriving at Villa Park, it doesn’t now appear that Lerner has anyone waiting in the wings to take over. Rather than sounding like the oft-heard attempts of former assistants to disguise their desire for their club’s top job, MacDonald’s "I’ve not really thought about doing the job long term" comment after Saturday’s game seemed genuine. Especially when he described his experience at the helm as "surreal" and "a lot to get my head around". Unless MacDonald pulls together an amazing string of results this month, it’s more than likely that a new manager will arrive in the next few weeks. But how will Eriksson, Jol, Bradley or whoever it is feel about Ireland? If the midfielder plays badly, the new manager won’t be able to dismiss him as one of the last manager’s buys. And will there be any more players arriving before a new manager?
Anther question raised by this affair is what are Stephen Ireland’s motivations for signing at Villa? He’s probably right to consider Villa an appropriate team for him, but few players in the past will have committed to long-term deals at clubs without knowing who their manager will be. Perhaps nowadays players like Ireland, who in five years at City had four different bosses, have grown so used to changing name plaques on the manager’s office door that who manages a team is no longer a factor in whether or not to sign for them. Simon Cotterill