While Aston Villa strive to strengthen their squad before tomorrow’s transfer deadline, Stephen Ireland has already set his sights on a signing for next summer – himself.
Ireland still has half of the four-year deal he signed in August 2010 remaining, but he is keen to extend his claret and blue career by earning a new deal at the end of the current campaign.
The 26-year-old midfielder has experienced mixed fortunes since arriving at Villa Park as a makeweight in the transfer that took James Milner in the opposite direction to Manchester City two years ago.
By his own admission his first season was a nightmare as he failed to see eye-to-eye with former manager Gerard Houllier. A loan spell at Newcastle to kick-start his confidence proved to be ill-fated when he suffered an injury and barely played for the Magpies.
Last year he was given a fresh start by Houllier’s successor Alex McLeish and revelled in the faith the manager placed in him.
Ireland showed exciting glimpses of his talent – most notably during his goalscoring man-of-the-match performance during Villa’s memorable New Year’s win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, the former Republic of Ireland midfielder went on to be named the club’s supporters’ player of the year for the 2011-12 campaign, although the award said as much about Villa’s sorry season and a lack of candidates as it did about Ireland himself.
Which brings us to his third season and third ‘permanent’ manager as new boss Paul Lambert tries to restore Villa – and Ireland – to their former glories.
Part of Ireland’s problem with the claret and blues has been that he was not signed when Villa were without a manager – the club’s board and caretaker Kevin MacDonald sanctioned the deal – so he has constantly had to prove himself to a succession of new faces in the dugout.
It’s early days for Ireland under Lambert, but so far he has enjoyed working for the 43-year-old Scot.
“Absolutely,” said Ireland. “He is a really good guy and fair and honest.
‘‘He definitely knows what he is doing and talking about and he has been really impressive to me and I’m hoping I can play under him for as long as possible.
“At the end of the season I’ve got 12 months left on my contract so I’m hoping I can earn a contract here and prove myself to him with a good consistent run of form, That is my goal this year as well.
“I’ve got to let my football do the talking and it’s up to the chairman and the manager.”
Already, Ireland’s season so far has provided a snapshot of the ups and downs of his previous 24 months at the club.
He was in the starting line-up for the opening day defeat at West Ham United and although he showed some nice touches he was unable to provide the cutting edge Villa lacked and was dropped for the home setback against Everton last Saturday.
However, Ireland bounced back with an impressive display in Tuesday evening’s Capital One Cup second round victory over Tranmere Rovers and hopes to have done enough to keep his place at former loan club Newcastle United this Sunday.
“Hopefully I’ve done enough to stay in the team against Newcastle,” he added. “I need a consistent run and with a consistent run I’ll hopefully get consistent performances.
That’s the main goal and target for this year, to go from game to game and strength to strength and get as many good performances as I can. I’m good and raring to go now.”