At his theoretical peak, Stephen Ireland finds himself in the shade

Stoke City midfielder is at a career crossroads years on from his bright spark at Man City

Stephen Ireland, Stoke

Picture by: Richard Sellers / EMPICS Sport

At the age of 29, Stephen Ireland should be right at his peak.

But as Stoke City take part in a Capital One Cup semi-final against Liverpool, the midfielder appears to be a peripheral figure and a bit of a forgotten man.

He returned to the public consciousness a little bit last week when the ex-Ireland international was linked with a move to Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira.

More than likely the stat which reads just eight appearances in all competitions this season - including just two starts in the Capital One Cup's early rounds - has something to do with that. 

Indeed, the Cork man was playing with the Stoke U21s as his senior colleagues were losing 3-0 at Leicester City at the weekend.

That, of course, is part of his return to full fitness as injury has played a big part in his absence in recent weeks. But given that Stoke have a strong squad with a midfield which can feature two or three from Ibrahim Afellay, Glenn Whelan, Charlie Adam and Marco van Ginkel, he faces an uphill task to break into the starting team in the second half of this season.    

The one glimmer of hope for him is the fact that he is a player long valued by manager Mark Hughes, who was in charge during the brightest moment of his career at Manchester City in an impressive 2008-09.

Since Hughes' departure from City in December 2009, Ireland has only shone sporadically at spells which have taken him from Aston Villa to Newcastle and now to Stoke.

But this summer he will be at a crossroads as will the club given that he turns 30 in August and the fact that his contract runs out the following summer.

If Stoke wish to cash in, assuming he remains peripheral, then this summer is the most likely point of departure.

But that would be a deeply disappointing ending under the shadow of the promise he showed at City briefly and in his abrupt time with Ireland with whom he still has an international record of four goals in six games including the first ever goal at Croke Park. 

While, the United Arab Emirates league where clubs like Al Jazira play has played host to footballers like Ghana international Asamoah Gyan and ex-Roma and Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic in recent years, those competitions often give off the sense of retirement leagues - not something meant for a 29-year-old who had the raw talent to make more of an impression than he has done.

And even in spite of his self-imposed exile from international duty, there's always that sense of disappointment if you feel a talent has not gone from bud to bloom.