Fears were growing last night that Stephen Ireland, the troubled Manchester City midfield player, will give up international football at the tender age of 21.
The player is already on temporary "leave", having withdrawn from Ireland’s squad for the European Championship qualifying matches at home to Germany and Cyprus, after missing the previous international week amid sensational developments in which he misled his club and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) about the reason behind his unavailability.
He claimed that a grandmother had died before finally admitting that he had withdrawn from the squad because his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage. Although still playing for City, he is receiving counselling for his problems and his club have enlisted specialist help from the United States.
Newspaper reports in Dublin at the weekend claimed that the reason that Ireland put his international career on hold was that he had been mocked by his Ireland colleagues over an alleged hair transplant or his wearing of a hairpiece.<!--#include file="m63-article-related-attachements.html"-->
This taunting, it was said, degenerated into two teammates pinning him to the floor and attempting to remove the "evidence". It is understood that Ireland’s distress at the reports could shatter his recovery. "If this goes on, there’s now a great fear that Stephen will retire from Ireland for good," a source said. Another source told The Times that it was "more basic ribbing but he took it really badly". The FAI denied that any bullying took place.
A bit of a turn up this one. Is the real reason for Ireland's recent problems then more to do a bout of schoolyard-style bullying than the previous reason(s) Ireland offered?
Whilst support for Ireland came from Stuart Pearce, who also praised the club in how they handle players, if the reports are true then it surely must rank as one of the most bizarre explanations for making yourself unavailable for a game. It is almost hard not to laugh in a way, but for it to get to the level it has done it is obviously a serious issue for Ireland, and whilst dressing room banter is a time honoured facet in all sports you have to question how some of the quoted incidents can occur in a (professional) international football environment - and certainly did transcend mere ribbing.
Whilst not quite a change of Elton John proportions, it must be said though that Ireland's locks certainly look far fuller and volumous this season - after previously looking pretty thin on top from a lad barely into his twenties.
We know where all eyes will be anyway the next time Ireland steps out on a football field, and perhaps MoTD will have a guest celebrity hairdresser in the studio to try and clarify matters.
Judge for yourself from this Stephen Ireland interview from youtube.