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20 years of drama in Irish football, Chapter 4: The gaffer, the grannies and Miss Piggy

When he got the Ireland job Steve Staunton spoke passionately about bringing the granny rule back into Irish football. What happened in Slovakia was not quite what he had in mind.

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It began with a win over Sweden, it ended with a last-minute equaliser to avoid back-to-back defeats to Cyprus. Along the way there was the mysterious case of Stephen Ireland’s grandmothers; a visit to team training by a reporter dressed as Miss Piggy; a nightmare in Nicosia but also a run of nine games without defeat. Garry Doyle takes you back through the Steve Staunton years. 

steve-staunton Steve Staunton's reign lasted under two years. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IT WAS DARK and cold on the night of 8 September 2007, a sharp wind biting at the remainder of us left inside Slovakia’s Tehelné pole stadium. Earlier in the evening only 12,360 fans had kept us company, the prospect of watching two middling European teams as unappealing then as it sounds now.

The game ended 2-2, Marek Cech’s last-minute equaliser the big talking point. Or so we thought. 

The last we saw of Stephen Ireland wearing an Ireland track-suit was about 40 minutes after the final whistle, when one of the FAI’s security staff guided him around the back of a tented mixed zone. At the time, none of us passed any remarks, given how players often avoided post-match press duties for one reason or another.

Even so, the pretence of mourning a dead grandmother was rarely one of them.

Match-days are when players go into lockdown – their phones switched off, or in some cases, handed over to a FAI official for safekeeping. So when Ireland’s girlfriend, Jessica, was frantically trying to contact him before kick-off, the only voice she got was the midfielder’s messaging service.

Panicking, she then tried to get in touch with Steve Staunton, the Ireland manager. But his phone was also off. Finally, Jessica got hold of the FAI administrator in charge of the senior team’s logistics, telling her that Ireland’s grandmother, Patricia Tallon, had passed away. It was Staunton who broke the news to Ireland after the game.

Next came the pivotal moment, when Ireland is handed back his phone. He called Jessica. “She was distraught,” (about a personal issue) Ireland would later explain. “Jessica said she was very lonely and wanted me to come home. She thought they might let me home quicker if they thought my grandmother had died.”

The saga had only just begun.

Back at the team’s hotel overlooking Bratislava’s main square, everyone was doing their bit to try and ease Ireland’s pain. Physio Mick Byrne sat up with him half the night, arm around his shoulder, consoling him throughout. And one by one, all the players in the squad came to Ireland’s room to pay their respects, each of them still under the impression that his grandmother had passed away.

At one point someone suggested hiring a private jet to get him back to Cork. However this was the opening weekend of the Rugby World Cup in France as well as the tail end of the Celtic Tiger. None were available.  

At this stage, John O’Shea stepped in. He had a number for a company Manchester United used. By 3am, a jet was booked, Ireland free to fly home later that morning. Problem solved? If only. The FAI knew they’d have to release a statement, Ireland telling them his grandmother had died in a car accident. Plus, when offered the option of flying to Cork, he said he’d jet back to Manchester, firstly, before making his own way across for the funeral.

The team, meanwhile, had their own flight to catch from Bratislava to Prague, venue of their next match against the Czech Republic. The time had come to fasten their seat-belts and deal with some in-flight turbulence.

Aware he had a bulletin to file for that evening’s Six One news, RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue decided to double-check the circumstances surrounding Patricia Tallon’s supposed death. He called the mortuary in Cobh. “Tony, boy, no one has died in Cobh in the last 24 hours,” O’Donoghue was told. “And if they had, I’d have heard about it.”

After finding out this, the FAI discreetly did some investigative work. By 10pm on the night after their game in Slovakia, they’d been told that Patricia Tallon had been seen earlier that day after mass – a significant improvement on her condition.

Back in Manchester, Ireland’s phone rang. Staunton had a few questions. Ireland had a few answers. A different grandmother, Brenda Kitchener, had been the one who passed away, he claimed. And that appeared to be that.

Except when Brenda Kitchener’s niece read about her aunt’s supposed death in the Daily Mail later that week, she contacted the newspaper to set them straight. Again, the FAI had to go chasing, linking up with Manchester City to find out where Ireland was. They’d given him compassionate leave. Eventually they tracked him down and by Friday morning, six days after the first phone call, the truth was eventually told.

Stephen Ireland was 21. He had won six international caps, scored four goals and mourned two grandmothers. When Staunton spoke passionately on his first day in charge about bringing the granny rule back into Irish football, this wasn’t quite what he had in mind.

inpho_00243977 Stephen Ireland celebrates his goal against Slovakia. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

**

The week before Staunton was confirmed as Ireland’s new manager, there was aggro. Online forums were becoming a bit of a thing and the heroes of cyberspace were enjoying the sound of their own keyboard.

Prior to the Ireland gig, Staunton had been assisting Paul Merson at Walsall. By the end of that week he was sitting in the Round Room of the Mansion House, venue of the first Dáil sitting. Now he was the one addressing the nation. “I’m the gaffer,” he said, “the buck stops with me.” 

Bobby Robson was there to share the load, a dressing-room source revealing the content of a speech Robson gave to the squad early in their reign when he talked about his experiences with England, telling the Irish players not to doubt themselves, how they were members of an elite club and how they should feel especially proud about that. 

However, Robson’s involvement with Ireland was tragically reduced by illness, an operation for lung cancer followed a few months later by further surgery to correct a brain tumour. It was this latter procedure which left him partially paralysed on his left side.

He was there as often as he could be, witnessing hope, despair, farce, tinkering, a move to Croke Park, some fine wins amid a nine-game unbeaten run, introductions to a list of players who’d go on to enjoy decent careers for Ireland, a farewell to a few old faces  …… and Cyprus.

Eamon Dunphy had already called for Staunton to be sacked two games prior to Nicosia, a 4-0 defeat at home to the Dutch prompting the shiest of souls to splash his thoughts across the front page of The Star. No one paid too much attention, though. The Netherlands game was a friendly; Dunphy the pundit who cried wolf.

Then came the evening of 7 October 2006; Cyprus 5-2 Ireland wasn’t just a scoreline, it should have been a resignation note.

Certainly The Irish Sun thought so, mocking up a picture of Staunton as Kermit the frog, under the headline, muppet. On the morning of their mock-up, the paper’s editor sent a news reporter into a city centre costume shop to hire a Kermit outfit. None were in stock. Not for the first time Miss Piggy seized her chance to shine.

When I arrived for that morning’s press conference, Miss Piggy was already there, dictaphone in one trotter, notepad in the other. She approached Damien Duff to tell the Ireland winger that she ‘wanted to take over from Stan because he had mucked up the team’. Duff didn’t break stride, shaking Miss Piggy by the trotter, shaking his head in bemusement.

As he did so, Staunton copped on to what was happening, and swiftly walked around the tail end of the bus to avoid the money picture. Two nights later, a Czech side who had reached the semis of Euro 2004, were the ones parking the bus, lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw.

It’s something that is often overlooked about Staunton’s time in charge. His record in competitive home games was better than Giovanni Trapattoni’s and Martin O’Neill’s. After the 5-2 defeat in Cyprus, he lost just once more as Ireland boss. Denmark were beaten 4-0 in Aarhus, albeit in a friendly. His penultimate game was a scoreless draw against Germany. The Slovakia win at Croke Park was more than decent. But you can’t gloss over the reality. There may have been good nights but the disastrous ones have stayed longer in the memory.

**

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The temperature was nearly freezing when the Czech Airline flight touched down in Dublin airport in the early hours after the qualifier in San Marino. Snow was forecast; so was recrimination. 

Bobby Robson discovered as much later that afternoon when he made an appearance on RTE’s Liveline show, spending 75 minutes politely answering questions not just from Joe Duffy but also irate callers who were berating the managerial set-up.

It was uncomfortable listening because Robson, affected with a cold, sounded hoarse and unwell. But you could see why supporters were angry. San Marino were ranked 198th in the world at the time; Germany had beaten them 13-0 the previous year. At the post-match press conference, Staunton had talked about his team’s heart, character and how San Marino were a team who could trouble other sides in the group.  

They have not won a fixture since 2004.

papers-after-irelands-dismal-1-2-win-over-san-marino The newspaper reaction on the day after Ireland's 2-1 win over San Marino. Source: Lorainne O'Sullivan/INPHO

**

Marty Morrissey was killing time. With the support bouts over and 15 minutes remaining before Bernard Dunne was scheduled for his ringwalk, Morrissey had to fill the void for the seven thousand fans seated inside The Point, there to see Dunne’s European title defence against Reidar Walstad. It was an easy job at first for the MC.

“Joining us here at ringside from the world of rugby,” Morrissey shouted, “let me introduce DENNNNNIS HICKKKKKKKKKIE, SHANE HORGAN and the great BRIAN O’DRISCOLL.”

The crowd cheered.

“Comedy’s Brendan O’Carroll.”

Cheers.

“And last but not least, the Irish soccer team.”

Boos.

You could see the embarrassment on the players’ faces. A day earlier they’d recorded a 1-0 win over a Welsh team containing Gareth Bale and Ryan Giggs.

**

By now, people were queuing up to dance on Staunton’s grave, even though there still was no sign of a corpse. Quietly he pointed out that his team had collected 10 points from their previous four games when he arrived into the pre-match press conference for the March 2007 game against the Slovaks. Flanking him that day were four senior players, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane, prompting the old cynic sitting next to me to suggest they were Staunton’s pallbearers.

Yet the intention was clear. Players and manager wanted to show a united front. After getting jeered at the Dunne fight, four players had also been heckled on an afternoon stroll around Portmarnock. “Hope youse lose on Wednesday,” one person shouted at them.

“No matter what anyone thinks, we’re still very positive within the camp,” Duff said at that press conference. “The negativity has come from outside. It’s been around for a while – but it is water off a duck’s back at this stage. The fact is, though, that we were sloppy on Saturday – and that’s nothing to do with Stan. The fact that we can’t pass the ball 10 yards at times isn’t his fault.”

The following night they got things right, their 1-0 win a triumph for a manager who opted for a 4-4-1-1 system, the tactical looseness of their approach in Cyprus replaced by a much more astute strategy.

Significantly this was also the first time in the campaign when Staunton showed faith in the same back four for two successive games. In each of the qualifiers up until that point, he hadn’t named the same team twice.

To be fair, for the most part, he didn’t have a choice, injuries and suspensions hindering his cause. 

For starters, Stephen Carr and Steven Reid, his preferred right-sided partnership, were unavailable for every qualifier bar the first one. Worse again, the absence of Shay Given for the games against Cyprus, the Czech Republic and San Marino proved damaging. Others – Kevin Doyle, Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland and Robbie Keane – were also missing at one stage or another.

You can’t ignore the fact there were suspensions and injuries, at least three key players absent from each of his competitive matches. Yet you also can’t ignore that in his opening six qualifiers, Staunton selected three different right backs, four different left backs and five different players at right midfield.

Crucially, he also chopped and changed his central defensive, central midfield and attacking options, sometimes when injuries forced his hand, sometimes not. At centre back, Dunne started the campaign with Andy O’Brien as his defensive partner. By the end of it, Joey O’Brien, John O’Shea and Paul McShane each had a stint as Dunne’s sidekick.

O’Shea, meanwhile, played midfield, right back, left back and centre half in those qualifiers and didn’t play the same position in two successive games until the campaign’s sixth and seventh matches. By that stage Robbie Keane had been partnered – at various stages of the qualifiers – by Kevin Doyle, Stephen Elliott, Clinton Morrison, Alan Lee, Damien Duff, Shane Long, Anthony Stokes and Stephen Ireland.

yiasoumis-yiasoumi-and-john-oshea John O'Shea played in four different positions during that Euro 2008 campaign. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Central midfield was another troubled spot. Kevin Kilbane and John O’Shea were the manager’s first choice in Stuttgart for the Germany fixture.

A month later, after injuries had disrupted his plans, Staunton opted for Ireland and Kilbane in Nicosia. Three days later, for the Czech game, Lee Carsley was brought in from the cold – partnered by Jonathan Douglas initially, then Andy Reid, then Ireland and then, against Wales, Douglas. You cannot pinpoint injuries as the sole reason for all that change.

Likewise, on the right flank – we saw five different pairings in the first five games, Carr and Reid; Finnan and McGeady; Finnan and Duff; O’Shea and Duff; O’Shea and Ireland. In total 36 players either played or sat on the bench in the opening six qualifiers, some disappearing without trace.

Sean St Ledger was one. He arrived from obscurity to take his place on the bench against Germany but was dropped after the Czech Republic match. He never kicked a ball for Ireland until Giovanni Trapattoni became manager.

To be fair, Staunton did some things well. He had a four-year contract and his intention was to blood players in the first campaign and profit from those investments in his second one. Ireland, Doyle, Shane Long, Joey O’Brien, Darron Gibson, Stephen Hunt were among those handed their debuts by the manager; Darron Randolph’s first appearance in an Ireland squad came during his time.

Still, it was hard to discern a consistent approach. You only have to look at the 23 men selected in his squad to play Sweden in his opening fixture. There and then you would have presumed that those 23 were the ones he intended to call upon when life got tough in the trenches.

But 12 months later, only 13 of those 23 had survived the cut – injuries explaining the absence of Joey O’Brien, Steven Reid, Graham Kavanagh and Stephen Elliott. But Gary Breen, Paddy Kenny, Liam Lawrence, Andy O’Brien, Liam Miller and Morrison fell out of favour, Morrison’s absence explained by the fact Staunton had a preference for strikers operating at Premiership level. Thirteen years on, he’s still annoyed at how his Ireland career petered out.

“Cyprus was my last game,” Morrison said. “I played badly that night but then again everyone did. Stan said to me a while after that his intention was to give the youngsters a try. My Ireland career drifted away and it is still the biggest regret of my career that I didn’t win more than 36 caps. I scored nine goals, but I had very few starts. I’m gutted I didn’t get to 50 caps. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had bumped into Stan back then but now, well now I’d shake his hand. At the time I was proper gutted. I felt I had loads still to offer.”

**

Joey Lapira also felt he could offer something when he hooked up with the Ireland team in New Jersey for their two-game tour of the US in June 2007. A student at the Mendoza School of Business studies in Notre Dame University, Lapira was operating in the US collegiate league when he became the first amateur in 43 years to play for Ireland.

Some context is needed here. Lapira had won the Hermann trophy – College soccer’s player of the year award – 12 months earlier. The US wanted him; Staunton thought it was worth having a look. Yet the decision to play an amateur in an international annoyed the hell out of dozens of uncapped Irish pros who had dreams of representing their country. “Heck, it was exciting,” Lapira said after the game against Ecuador. “I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. To be honest, I didn’t expect to play and was really just enjoying training with the team.”

 

joe-lapira-of-ireland-on-the-attack Joe Lapira in action against Ecuador. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

**

By October, it was coming to an end. As club officials scampered around Dublin trying to offload tickets for the Cyprus match, the cost of the team’s failure was beginning to show. Match-day tickets traditionally were a source of revenue for junior clubs.

Now it was a strain. The grass-roots made their feelings known when 16,000 of them failed to show. Pressure was applied up the chain of command. Those on the FAI Council heard about it.

And then when the Cypriots took the lead in that game, everyone heard the words coming down from the Croke Park stands in the 70th minute of Steve Staunton’s 16th game in charge. “You don’t know what you are doing,” the Irish fans sang after a substitution.

That was when the game was up. He’d lost the backing of the Press, the public and finally the board.

Only the players still supported him yet they had a funny way of showing it. They finished that campaign 10 points adrift of qualification. Robbie Keane’s only competitive goals for Staunton came in the home game against San Marino.

The manager was already on two strikes – the 5-2 defeat in Nicosia and last-gasp win in San Marino – when he faced Cyprus at home. It took a 92nd minute goal from Steve Finnan to turn a disastrous result into a mere embarrassment.

Within the month Staunton was out, the FAI once again on the look-out for a new manager. As it happened, the one they turned to was going through a sticky patch of his own, Giovanni Trapattoni smarting from the fact his Red Bull team had been beaten 4-1 by LASK Linz the previous week. Three months later, he was welcoming the FAI’s headhunters into his Salzburg apartment. He offered them cheese and salami. They offered him a new chapter in his storied career.

* Tomorrow at 8am: The Trap years, chapter 5

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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