Listen to the latest episode of our podcast, in which we discuss Stephen Ireland and some of the most wasted talents football has seen over the years:
What constitutes a wasted talent?
Once you start debating and trying to define it, you quickly find yourself emerged in the weeds, in a futile attempt to discern who has thrown away their god-given talent and who was just never that good in the first place.
It’s a wholly subjective task, one that will never have a truly definitive answer. In this writer’s effort to define it, the best I could come up with is this: A player who appears or appeared to have all the necessary tools to go far in the game or become a great player, but for one reason or another, did not reach those heights.
There are some caveats, the obvious one being injuries. They are inevitable in football, and one wonders how much greater Ronaldo would have been had his knee not have exploded just as he hit his prime. His namesake Cristiano, and Lionel Messi have been extremely lucky not to suffer the cruel ignominy of a serious, long-term injury, allowing them to flourish throughout their careers. On the other hand, injuries can also be a consequence of not looking after oneself properly, so it can be a tricky one to decipher in this context.
Media coverage is easier to measure. Freddy Adu is often included in lists of wasted talent, but the fact is, he was over-hyped and overrated by the media and sponsors such as Nike, trying to make as much money as possible in promoting him. He had never played a senior game in his life, so how could anyone reliably know his talent level at that point? Many players endure this kind of hype early on in their careers and can’t live up to it, through no fault of their own. Sometimes they were never that good to begin with.
If we want to nail down the essence of a wasted talent, then we should look no further than Stephen Ireland.
When he emerged in 2005, Ireland was just another hopeful youth prospect, but soon became the great white hope of a nation. His performances for Man City and the Republic of Ireland garnered praise, demonstrating a quickness of thought matched by his feet. A rare commodity in Irish football.
The Cork native scored three goals in his first four international caps, including a vital goal against San Marino. Whereas the team was going through a rough patch circa 2007, his class was evident with stellar performances in qualifiers against Wales and Slovakia. And yet to this day he only has six caps to his name.
Ireland didn’t know it at the time, but he reached his peak in 2009, wresting the Man City player of the year award away from Richard Dunne’s grasp; thereafter it all went south. Deemed surplus to requirements by the end of the following season, the midfielder had forgettable spells at Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Stoke City, failing to recapture the kind of magic that defined his early years in the sport.
What happened? Injuries, for one. Ireland’s knee has taken a battering over the years, to the point where he didn’t play a single minute in the 2016-17 season for the Potters. In turn, his match fitness has been woeful whenever he has been available for selection. Injury struck again while he was on trial at Bolton Wanderers in August, scuppering a potential move to the Trotters.
While that is desperately unlucky and unfortunate timing, the Irishman has also been his own worst enemy at times. His infamous underpants celebration and the photos of him with his bright pink car can be explained away as the actions of a young messer, but they helped to create this image of a professional athlete who didn’t take things all that seriously.
Still, the football fraternity gave him the benefit of the doubt, in no small part thanks to his ball-playing abilities, handing him enough rope with which to hang himself. He duly did: complaining about his “money-obsessed” Manchester colleagues while holding out for a £2m payoff, being photographed smoking from a shisha pipe, going on a mad rant against Giovanni Trapattoni, all of which contributed to the public’s perception of him as a tosser.
Ireland did go through personal heartache during the ignominious episode that was Grannygate, when his partner apparently suffered a miscarriage, the true reason behind his leaving the Irish squad in 2007. Given the two splendid seasons he would play at club level following that incident however, it cannot be judged as the turning point in his career.
The signs were there from early on, following a dispute with Brian Kerr at youth level which left the Corkonian ostracised from squads until the coach left the FAI in 2005, that he would get in the way of his innate talent. For others the fall can be more obvious. Renato Sanches, who was cast as the next big thing when he moved from Benfica to Bayern Munich as a teenager, is dangerously close to wasted talent territory. A Euro 2016 winners medal was later followed by a disastrous loan spell at Swansea City. He has plenty of time ahead of him, but the Portuguese should take heed of Ireland’s story and arrest the slide before it becomes irreversible.
George Best is sometimes offered up as an example of wasted talent, and while his retirement at the age of 27 is convincing evidence of that, the Northern Irishman still won a European Cup with Manchester United while dazzling huge crowds for years with his outstanding skill and trickery. Perhaps Robin Friday is a better example. Although we have next to no footage to prove otherwise, the Reading and Cardiff City legend was a tremendous player who lived a life of debauchery off it. He spent his short career in the lower reaches of English football when, with a different attitude and lifestyle, he should have been at the very top level.
In more modern times we can see the slide more clearly; there is a very evident before and after. Adriano only had a few great years at Inter before losing his way. Ravel Morrison didn’t even get that much. Jermaine Pennant, Anthony Stokes, Willo Flood, Ricardo Quaresma, Darron Gibson; all players, to name a few, who showed glimpses of what they could be if they squeezed every last bit of talent they had for what it was worth, but ultimately failed.
And yet, sometimes this writer feels as if it is actually our fault for projecting our own feelings onto these players, desperate to proclaim the new king before they’re ready to wear the crown.
[Sources: The42, Irish Times, Wikipedia.]
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Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.