Dublin: 3°C Monday 29 November 2021
Advertisement

'Steve Staunton is an icon of Irish football and will always be' - remembering Stan's remarkable reign

The young Boys in Green boss dealt with controversies, landmark defeats and media battles.

Untitled design (3)

Republic of Ireland manager Steve Staunton has reacted angrily to media attempts to contact his parents in the wake of the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus.

Addressing a press conference at Lansdowne Road this afternoon Staunton called on those present to tell their “media friends” to “leave my mother and father alone”.

“Stop trying to get in contact with them,” said the Louthman. “I don’t know who it is . . . well I have a good idea, I know what papers and what media are trying to do it.

“It’s nothing to do with my mother and father. It’s to do with us and the team,” he added.

Staunton was yesterday depicted as Kermit the frog on the front page of The Sun newspaper, while the Daily Star’s headline and columnist Eamonn Dunphy called for the FAI to “Stop the Bullshit”.

The Sun also sent a “journalist” dressed as Miss Piggy to the Irish training session in Malahide yesterday, where he was photographed shaking hands with Damien Duff.

– Irish Times report, 10 October 2006

****

THERE WERE times when the Steve Staunton era was treated like a comedy, but particularly when you look back, there are certainly tragic elements to the story.

In an interview with Colin Young undertaken to coincide with the launch of The Irish Daily Mail, then-Football Association of Ireland chief executive John Delaney had promised Brian Kerr’s successor would be a “world-class manager”.

Shortly thereafter, Steve Staunton was announced as the new Ireland boss.

Staunton’s credentials as a player were not in doubt. He had enjoyed a long and distinguished career with Aston Villa and Liverpool among others, and at the time, was Ireland’s record appearance holder with 102 caps. His managerial ability, however, remained to be seen.

Yet Staunton had been put in a difficult position. As he later told Simon Hughes in his book ‘Red Machine’: “I didn’t apply for it — the FAI sought me out… I received a phone call and the person on the other end of the line said: ‘Stephen, would you like to manage your country?’ I’d played 102 times for Ireland — more than any other player in history — but it was a huge surprise and a big honour. If I’m honest, I wasn’t all that taken with the idea because I thought it might have come too soon. Then I questioned whether I’d ever be offered the opportunity again, so I had to take it.’”

Perhaps in an acknowledgement of Staunton’s lack of experience, Bobby Robson — the legendary former England, Newcastle and Barcelona boss — was appointed as an advisor.

  • See sport differently with The42 Membership and get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate. Click here to find out more>

Yet by the time of Ireland’s first Euros qualifier — a formidable trip to Stuttgart to face a Germany side that had recently made it as far as the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup — Robson was not on the bench and instead, recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour.

“He wasn’t a young man at the time,” Young, a journalist who covered both the Staunton era and Robson’s time at Newcastle, recalls. “He had been released from his duties at Newcastle, according to the chairman Freddy Shepherd primarily because of his age.

“I wouldn’t like to say he lost the dressing room, but there were issues with certain players the Newcastle board felt could only be dealt with by getting rid of Bobby, which is a very harsh and unfair way of dealing with it.

“He had a mini-stroke at some point early on in the reign and that debilitated him to a certain extent.

“But mentally, you wouldn’t have known it from a football perspective. 

We got a couple of sit-downs with him at the ground at Malahide. There was a certain pride from my point of view that we were seeing him at his best and when he got going, he was just brilliant to listen to.

“I remember once he said to us at Newcastle: ‘You lot should be paying for my press conferences.’ And he was right because sometimes the stories were unbelievable, great fun. And we didn’t really see that because Steve Staunton was the manager and he was out in the press most of the time.

“If you kept putting Bobby up, there’s only so many times Bobby’s charm is going to work on the press because he’s not the manager. So from that perspective, the couple of times we did get to see him I remember very fondly.

bobby-robson Bobby Robson overseeing training. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“From a personal point of view, we used to travel back and forth on the same flights a lot to Newcastle. I would quite often get to sit with him on the flight and the taxis away from the airports and have a bit of a catch-up and a nice chat with him. I think he was as frustrated with his lack of influence in terms of turning it into positive results all the time.

“Obviously, he couldn’t do every single away trip as well with big long distances and stuff like that. So I think he was frustrated by the fact that he only had limited input.

“But I do know that Staunton himself valued him.”

With Robson unavailable, Pat Devlin filled the vacant role on the bench.

Devlin had known Staunton since his days as a player when he was Liverpool’s chief scout in Ireland.

He had a long career coaching in the League of Ireland and so Staunton initially appointed him to keep an eye out for talented domestic-based players. He also took charge for two Ireland B internationals against Scotland but his role eventually “evolved into everything” and Devlin was a regular presence on the Irish bench for games.

In an echo of Staunton’s comments in ‘Red Machine,’ Devlin tells The42: “For a young man like Steve when the head of the association comes to you and says: ‘We’d like to offer you the ultimate job.’ There must be something wrong if you don’t take it. It’s a challenge. It’s not always perfect if you’re going to look at it and see how you can make it perfect.”

Delaney had only been named FAI CEO on a permanent basis in March 2005 and so Staunton was his first official managerial appointment.

How the manager and the team performed would go a long way towards determining how the new chief executive was perceived by the Irish public and the media.

steve-staunton-and-pat-devlin Steve Staunton and Pat Devlin. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

What was a largely turbulent 19 months in charge started promisingly. Staunton hailed the 3-0 friendly win over Sweden as “a bit of a fairytale”.

But Lansdowne Road losses followed against Chile (0-1) and Netherlands (0-4) — the latter being Ireland’s worst home defeat since May 1966.

There was a particularly unsettling incident in the lead-up to the Dutch game. Staunton was on his phone in the car park of the team hotel when a man, who was later arrested, approached the Irish manager threatening to kill him and brandishing a plastic imitation Uzi sub-machine gun.

There was plenty of verbal violence too, particularly after Ireland suffered a disastrous 5-2 defeat against Cyprus in Staunton’s second competitive game in charge — undermining a creditable display in the opening qualifier where they had been unlucky to lose 1-0 to Germany. Staunton had been forced to watch the game in Nicosia from the stands after being sent off for kicking a water bottle in frustration during the Stuttgart encounter.

“I’m a football person,” says Devlin. “I’m a realist. Sometimes managers at all levels get it wrong and sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don’t get a bounce of the ball. It happens at all levels. It doesn’t matter who you are. You’ve no divine right to get it right all the time and to be better than the underdog.

“I said to [goalkeeper coach] Alan Kelly on the night: ‘These really are up for the game.’ They deserved to win on the night. It wasn’t down to decisions that Steve made or even [assistant manager] Kevin MacDonald for that matter. Steve was not allowed to sit on the bench, he was upstairs. The preparation was always excellent. Just on the night, we didn’t perform well. That’s it. Sometimes you just have to take it.

“But the reaction to it was quite embarrassing to everybody. People started stirring it a little bit and to his credit, he was always a top pro. Unbelievable record with Ireland, 102 caps. And he handled himself impeccably. People were saying this and that, and it was very wrong, to be quite honest. He just had a lot of bad luck.

“The transition from being a player and a manager in hindsight is always tough. Sometimes, it goes for you and sometimes, it doesn’t. He didn’t always have his best team out on the pitch because some of them weren’t available or were injured.”

general-view-of-the-final-score Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Young, by contrast, has a somewhat different outlook on that fateful evening: “The face was just full of hell on those type of nights. He was just angry and couldn’t answer questions. He was incapable of handling defeat and he certainly wasn’t capable of handling defeats publicly in front of people like us, which kind of added fuel to the fire. To go to Cyprus and get those types of results completely undermined him and he knew it.”

One aspect that Young and Devlin agree on is that the media criticism of Staunton at times went too far.

Devlin, on occasion, was himself caught in the crossfire — he took particular exception to one article prior to the Germany game that compared him unfavourably to Bobby Robson and suggested his League of Ireland background rendered him ill-equipped to coach at international level.

On the criticism of Staunton, Devlin adds: “He had a magnificent career and I don’t think he read too many articles, he just felt it would stop, but in fact, it didn’t stop. I think it was grossly unfair and very personal.

“He was promised he would go on and manage in the next World Cup and that didn’t happen. So he was trying to fix something along the way and it was quite difficult because it was in the John Delaney reign. John was pretty early in the job and very supreme. It really came down to either John or Steven going, so there was always only one winner there really.

“There has to be a line drawn with everything. It is only football. You must respect people’s positions. And you must also respect their decisions. And whatever decisions they are, support them. If it gets to a stage where you can’t support it, every manager knows that once you take a job, ultimately, you’re going to be sacked anyway. We all accept that. But there’s a right and wrong way of doing things. I just think that certain people let themselves down badly.

“When you look at journalists, you expect honesty and integrity, and a little respect. And at that time, it didn’t happen.”

And why does Devlin feel the media backlash was so severe?

“There were certain people very well connected in the game here, particularly in the media, who didn’t feel that Steve was the best choice. And some people resented the fact that certain other people were overlooked for Bobby Robson.

“He wouldn’t have known the politics of it or even thought about it. He would only think of the honour of managing your country. Sometimes, life can deal up a very unfair hand. And right away when he took up that role, certain people in the media were immediately against him, which was dreadfully unfair.”

Young agrees to an extent with this assessment: “I think the fact was that probably a lot of journalists had written him off before he started.

“So there were relationships that were either tarnished from the start or certainly started in a very difficult way.”

Young adds that, at times, Staunton was merely a victim of circumstance.

A shambolic US tour seemed to highlight the pervading sense of disarray. Several senior players pulled out, meaning New York-born Joe Lapira, who qualified through his mother, became the first amateur player to represent Ireland since 1964.

Flash Sale
50% OFF

Use promo code: FLASH50 at checkout to access exclusive analysis, insight and debate for only €21.

Become a Member

“He was the manager and he’s the face of it therefore he’s the one that has to front up all the questions about squad selection and everything.

“But he didn’t arrange that infamous US tour. He didn’t arrange the timings. He didn’t arrange the squad knowing that Kevin Kilbane would be the only senior player who would go on that trip.

There was an element of the end-of-term party about it from the journalists’ point of view. There was not a lot of work done and we all ended up having some great nights.

“It’s not usual that the players and the management team feel exactly the same about an international trip.” 

Young agrees that Staunton had some justification in feeling aggrieved, given the overly personal nature of some of the criticism.

“I can’t remember who the personnel were in the office at the time, but there was almost a sustained campaign to ridicule. And I think it was The Sun in particular that went after him.

“The whole Stan Laurel, Laurel and Hardy jokey thing, that became an easy thing for The Sun to do. And from a punny, fun point of view, they did it well, but he was in the middle of that. 

“He kind of dug in, became angry at all of us, lashed out at all of us, blamed us all. But if you’re getting that kind of hammer and that kind of ridicule, like Graham Taylor as a turnip, there’s only so many times you can look at that paper or be told about it by someone else and not react to it.”

FootballFamily

Listen to Gavin Cooney, Paul Dollery and David Sneyd preview Ireland v Portugal on this week’s episode of The42′s member-only soccer podcast.

Perhaps the most farcical moment in what was a generally surreal tenure had little to do with Staunton himself. It can be summed up by the headline on The Guardian website: ‘Ireland apologises for lies over fate of both grandmothers.’

Stephen Ireland, a promising youngster at Man City and a key player for Staunton at the time, had falsely claimed two of his grandmothers had died in order to avoid having to play a crucial international fixture.

Again, this ostensibly comic story was underpinned by tragedy, as Ireland eventually explained that his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage.

papers-after-irelands-dismal-1-2-win-over-san-marino Newspaper coverage after Ireland's 2-1 win over San Marino. Source: Lorainne O'Sullivan/INPHO

“The Stephen Ireland one stands out and it stands out from a personal point of view because without beating about the bush, I broke the story,” says Young. “Stephen Ireland’s grandma rang me when I got home from Durham. It had gone on The Daily Mail website. And she lived in London. So she’d been told by a friend: ‘Have you seen this thing? You’re ‘dead.’ And it just fell like a pack of cards from there.

“Steve Staunton was right in the middle of it, hiring private jets, doing his very best to help and protect a player, his family, to get him out of Dodge, avoid the media, everything he did at that point was done to protect Stephen Ireland.

“To have a manager that’s protecting a player and the player’s taking the piss, I don’t know of anything that could sum up the reign, sadly, more than that. Because he was trying to do his best, under difficult circumstances, trying to deal with all that rubbish, and let’s be honest: somebody saying their grandma’s just died and they need to get home, you’re not going to say: ‘Hold on a minute, are you pulling a fast one here?’

“He did everything he could to help the lad and it absolutely exploded in his, the FAI’s and Stephen Ireland’s face. And they looked ridiculous out of it. And because you’re the manager, you have to accept some responsibility out of it.”

Staunton has had just one managerial job since leaving Ireland following the team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

He spent five months in charge of a struggling Darlington team in League Two and left after a bad run of four wins in 23 matches.

He has worked as an assistant boss at Leeds and as a scout for Sunderland and Wolves. Nowadays, he has a job behind the scenes at Liverpool.

steve-staunton-celebrates-after-the-game Staunton celebrates after the famous win over the Netherlands in 2001. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Devlin remains friendly with the former Ireland star — the pair played golf together only a few weeks ago. He believes that Staunton’s reputation has not been unduly damaged in the eyes of Irish public despite his disappointing time as national team manager.

“They see the truth behind it because Steve Staunton to this day is an icon of Irish football and will always be.

“He took the risk and I think he did a fantastic job. He was unfortunate. Yes, there were bad results but there were some very good results as well. He took it as a real professional, but it did damage him with his career after that. It did affect him. He didn’t get that many opportunities and he should have because he had an awful lot to offer and he still has an awful lot to offer.

“Maybe time has caught up with him, but I still think he was one of the best players to ever play for the country. And he’s certainly one of the best ambassadors ever for the country. And it was a shame he was treated that way by people that never actually played the game.”

See sport differently with The42 Membership and get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate. Click here to find out more>

- first published at 12.10pm, updated at 3pm to appear on The Journal.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next:

COMMENTS (20)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel