16 years ago, Steve Staunton was appointed Ireland manager - what went wrong?

By David Donnelly

It’s 16 years since Steve Staunton was confirmed as Ireland manager and ushered in one of the most contention periods in the national team’s history.

The Louthman was named successor to Brian Kerr on the afternoon of Friday the 13th (yes, really) of January with former England boss Bobby Robson as his 'international football consultant.'

Aston Villa coach Kevin McDonald (later fired by Villa amid bullying allegations) and former goalkeeper Alan Kelly were also part of the management team.

Robson, who managed Barcelona, PSV and Newcastle United during a glittering career, would have limited involvement due to ill-health that would see his life cut short three years later.

What the Irish Times referred to as ‘the worst kept secret in Irish football’ was finally revealed following a three-month search for the manager to lead Ireland into Euro 2008.

In hindsight, it wasn’t so much the Hunt for the Red October as the blundering search for the blue October, as Staunton was unceremoniously sacked late the following year.

Staunton was, and remains, a legend of Irish football, a veteran of three World Cups and the first man to reach 100 caps for the Boys in Green.

But how did it all go so wrong for him?

Names as diverse as Martin O’Neill, later to manage Ireland from 2013-2018, Alex Ferguson (this was the Celtic Tiger era) and Terry Venables (remember him?) were touted.

The FAI, run by the now-disgraced John Delaney, instead opted for Staunton, whose only coaching experience to date was as player/assistant manager at Walsall.

At the unveiling in the Mansion House in Dublin, Staunton talked a good game and made clear that, despite Robson’s presence, he was the man in charge.

“I’m the boss. I’m the gaffer, and the buck stops with me,” said Staunton, words that are repeated and parodied to this day.

Despite reservations, early signs were that the association may have pulled off a masterstroke as Ireland thumped a good Sweden side in his first game.

A stunning strike from the late Liam Miller, his only international goal, topped off an impressive 3-0 win at Lansdowne Road.

It didn’t last. A 1-0 defeat to Chile and a 4-0 reverse to Holland, Ireland’s worst-ever home defeat at that point, soon followed.

In between, a man was apprehended after breaching hotel security and threatening Staunton with an imitation uzi. This was the honeymoon period.

The qualification campaign pitted Ireland against World Cup semi-finalists Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Wales, Cyprus and San Marino - not easy, but far from daunting.

Staunton opted to continue Jack Charlton’s preference for scheduling the toughest games first, and a narrow 1-0 loss in Germany in game one saw Kevin Doyle debut.

That was supposed to be the tough part of the campaign out of the way and a trip to face minnows Cyprus was expected to be an easy win.

Staunton in action for Liverpool in a First Division game against Coventry City in May 1990, a season that would see the Reds crowned title-winners (Duncan Raban/Popperfoto via Getty Images))

In one of the most infamous games in Irish football history, an injury-hit Ireland led early through Stephen Ireland but conceded three second-half goals to lose 5-2.

In the aftermath of the game, Staunton was forced to plead with people to stop calling his parents at home in Dundalk, while the Sun newspaper depicted him on the front page as Kermit the Frog from the muppets.

A big performance was needed at home to Czech Republic three days later and Paul McShane debuted, and Kevin Kilbane scored, in a morale-boosting 1-1 draw.

Robbie Keane, whom Staunton named captain for the first time, bagged a hat-trick as Ireland beat San Marino 5-0 in the final game in the old Lansdowne Road.

At Croke Park, Stephen Ireland scored the only goal in a win over Wales and Doyle bagged his first international goal in a 1-0 win over Slovakia and Ireland were well on their way.

Shane Long scored twice as Ireland swatted aside Denmark in Aarhus in another friendly, and suddenly Ireland looked to be on an upward curve.

Heading into the away games in Slovakia and Czechia, Ireland were in a strong position to challenge for the top two, but it wasn’t to last.

Ireland twice surrendered a winning position in Bratislava, Doyle scoring a terrific long-range striker to put Ireland 2-1 up, after Marek Cech scored in injury time.

And an early Marek Jakulovski goal was enough for the Czechs to take a 1-0 win from the game in Prague four days later.

A scoreless draw at home to Germany gave some hope, but Ireland again came unstuck against the Cypriots as Steve Finnan salvaged a draw deep in injury time.

Staunton at the press conference following his final game as manager against Cyprus (©INPHO/Donall Farmer)

It would prove to the be the final straw for the FAI, who gauged the mood of the nation and ended the failed experiment.

Don Givens came in as caretaker manager and oversaw the 2-2 draw in Wales to finish the campaign - again, Ireland led twice before a familiar pattern emerged.

It wasn’t to be the end of Staunton’s management career, however. He pitched up the following year at Leeds United as assistant to Gary McAllister.

After McAllister was given the bullet in December 2008, Staunton was appointed manager of League Two in October 2009 after Colin Todd was sacked.

He dipped into the Irish market, signing Simon Madden and Tadgh Purcell from Shamrock Rovers and Gary Dempsey from St Patrick’s Athletic.

The following March, Staunton was sacked with Darlington bottom of the league and just four points from his 23 games in charge.

It was the last time Staunton would be employed professionally in management and brought to an end a chapter that has, at times, overshadowed a stellar playing career.

He remains the only player to have appeared in all 13 of Ireland’s World Cup games, over a stellar 14-year international career.

Staunton won the First Division and FA Cup with Liverpool and a league cup with Aston Villa, having started his career with hometown club Dundalk. He remains an Irish legend.


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