As I write this, it's being rumoured that Paul Lambert is ready to end The Stephen Ireland Experiment for half of what we paid for him, at least Aston Villa supporters can say that they have seen the full range of Ireland's ability. In his debut for the club, Ireland was utterly hopeless as a newly-promoted Newcastle United put Villa to the sword. Ironically, Ireland would be loaned to the Magpies later that season and failed to contribute as much to their cause in the four months he spent playing for them as he did on that one day at St. James' Park. It became immediately clear to Aston Villa supporters that Ireland was the type of player that divided opinions to the point of polarization. Either you saw him as an irredeemable stain that should be washed out before he contaminated the clubhouse, or you hoped and believed that the promise he showed back in his early days with Manchester City could yet be realized with Aston Villa. I'll freely admit that I'm a sucker for players like Ireland. The "troubled genius" archetype is tremendously compelling for me, particularly because in those fleeting moments where they have their head on correctly, your belief is validated. It feels like a victory for the artists and dreamers over the cynics and moralists, and the platitudes of the huddled mass of armchair pundits (is there any other kind?) fall silent.
By my count, Stephen Ireland only had one of those moments in an Aston Villa shirt. What a moment it was, though. On the last day of 2011, Stephen Ireland put in a scarcely believable performance to give Aston Villa the unlikeliest of wins at Stamford Bridge, against a Chelsea team that would go on to win the FA Cup and the Champions League. In the immediate aftermath of a ridiculous pseudo-controversy involving a hookah pipe and more of his torso than anyone really needed to see, Stephen Ireland had the best game anyone would have in an Aston Villa shirt all season. Ireland bossed the Chelsea midfield, forcing turnovers with relative ease and leading the blistering counterattack that Aston Villa used to be known for. Just five minutes after Richard Dunne conceded a penalty that Didier Drogba put away with ease for the game's first goal, Stephen Ireland stuck his own rebound into the bottom corner to tie the score. After Stiliyan Petrov added another late in the second half, Ireland was instrumental in creating Darren Bent's goal to clinch the game. A goal, an assist, and Man of the Match honours in the only game all season where Aston Villa appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Not half bad for a misfit struggling to live up to his potential.
Ireland also put in good performances in Villa's 1-1 draw with Everton (setting up Darren Bent for Villa's only goal) and the 0-0 at the end of the season against Sunderland, but he remained inconsistent and unreliable. Stephen Ireland at his best is exactly who Aston Villa need, a central midfielder who can hold and create in equal measure, someone capable of dictating the tempo in big games. But Stephen Ireland is rarely at his best, which is why a manager like Paul Lambert can afford to cut him loose. Ireland is a project, and that isn't necessarily what Aston Villa need, given the position they're in and the position they hope to regain after a season spent in the wilderness. If Ireland goes, I hope he succeeds, and he could prove useful to a team of otherwise workmanlike players looking for a bit of magic that might win them a game or two on his own and maybe keep them in the division. Like some might say he did with Aston Villa this season.
In an event that perhaps said more about Aston Villa's season than it did about Stephen Ireland, Villa fans awarded Ireland with their player of the season award. Just like everyone else, my first reaction was "this must be a joke." The more I think about it, the more I realize how unfair that is to Ireland, and even though I probably wouldn't have voted for him, The Stephen Ireland Experiment is one worth remembering fondly.