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ston Villa midfielder Stephen Ireland is looking for a January route out of his Villa nightmare.

The midfielder arrived in the Midlands as part of the deal that saw James Milner move to Manchester City.

But Ireland, 24, has struggled at Villa Park and wants to leave in the next transfer window.

He has started just five of Villa’s 14 Premier League games this season, finishing only one of them.

Ireland’s relationship with manager Gerard Houllier was called into question when the Frenchman publicly criticised the player earlier this month. Houllier said: “He needs to work harder. The skill is one thing, but you need to compete.

“We know he’s a good player. I don’t want to say, ‘He’s a good player … but’.”

The verbal attack shocked Ireland and is understood to have had a major influence on his decision to leave Villa.

In addition, Ireland started Sunday’s defeat at Blackburn, but was replaced by Robert Pires, despite the fact rookies Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg were still on the pitch.

Ireland was reluctant to leave City in the summer and only agreed to the move when Roberto Mancini made it clear he had no part in his fi rst-team plans.

The prospect of regular football persuaded Ireland to join Villa, but that has failed to materialise.

The recent signing of Pires is likely to reduce Ireland’s fi rst-team chances further.

Fulham boss Mark Hughes is keen on Ireland after the pair worked together at City, but the Cottagers would struggle to find the £8m asking price.