Stephen Ireland has said his international exile was because he couldn’t afford to spend time away from his children.
The Corkonian’s six-cap international career remains infamous for him pretending his grandmothers had died to be excused from duty. Ireland hasn’t played for his country since that incident in 2007.
In an extensive interview with The Athletic, Ireland spoke about raising two kids as a single parent in his late teens and the pressures that placed on him when it came to international football.
Starting out, he says he was earning £85 a week and receiving financial and babysitting help from fellow players, such as Richard Dunne, Ben Thatcher, and Micah Richards. He used to get a taxi to home matches with his children, where Trevor Sinclair’s cousin took care of them in the players’ lounge.
It’s in that context he says the 10-day camps with Ireland caused him to create excuses not to attend.
He describes his first call-ups as being “like I’d won the lottery” but, as time went on, despite the offer of a babysitter at the team hotel from Ireland manager Steve Staunton, the Man City player felt the arrangement wasn’t right for his kids.
“I had to pick and choose my moments that I could play for Ireland and when I couldn’t. I just found the 10-day camps were too much for me to give.
“I remember I was playing live on TV for City, I was meant to fly out that night with Richard Dunne to meet up with Ireland, and I’d ring Steve Staunton up after the game and say: ‘I feel sick, I can’t come’.
“He was like: ‘I just saw you play live on TV!’
I couldn’t sacrifice going to play for Ireland, because literally for some reason it became a case of having to pick Ireland over my kids, and all day I’m going to pick my kids.
The grandmothers lie came about after Ireland’s partner Jessica had suffered a miscarriage during an international break.
Ireland made up the story about his maternal grandmother dying – he later said it was his paternal grandmother who had died, and then a grandfather’s second wife – before confessing the truth.
“I just wanted it to blow over and before you know it, it just went boom.
“It was mental. Mental. And I’m thinking: ‘All I said was something small.’ I know it’s not… I know it’s not something you do. It was in the heat of the moment in the changing room after the match. I was buying myself time, basically.
“The other players asked where I was going, so I said: ‘Back to England for a few days because my nan’s not well.’ They were giving me hugs and that, and I felt like a prick then. Imagine going back in and saying: ‘Alright lads, listen…’
At that point I actually felt like retiring from football. I swear to god, I actually considered retiring from football. I text my accountant and said: ‘Do I have enough money to retire?’ And he said: ‘Yeah you do, but it depends how much is enough’, and I was quite young.
“On reflection, I probably should’ve gone back and faced the music for a couple of days, but I guess I kind of ran from it. I was doing so well at Man City I didn’t want to go back, even more so.
“I wish I had dealt with things differently, that the whole thing was dealt with differently, actually, on both sides, but I wouldn’t say I regret not having played for Ireland since.
“It’s the family thing, as well. I’m such a family person and I just found it very hard. That’s why I respect the guys who do turn up and play 50, 60, 70 times for their country, because they were able to make that sacrifice and they were able to show up every time.
“Unfortunately for Ireland it’s not that I didn’t care, I just couldn’t do it. That will stick with me forever.”
Ireland, now 33, has been without a club since leaving Bolton in December 2018.
His eldest son, Joshua, now 15, has played for England at U16 level and is represented by Ireland’s management company Seven Sports.
You can read the full exclusive interview on The Athletic here.
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