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Jan 12, 2006

A farce to be reckoned with

The truth is often much stranger than the fiction.

So said the ever-unpredictable Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, as he oversaw Harry Redknapp's curious return to Portsmouth last month, yet the same phrase can certainly be applied to the imminent appointment of Steve Staunton as the new manager of the Republic of Ireland national team.

Judging individuals before they have even kicked a ball is an unfortunate trap many an observer has fallen into before when commenting on this ever unpredictable game, yet it is hard to find any enthusiasm for an appointment which is as bizarre as that of former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward being thrown into a prominent role by the aforementioned Mr Lowe at his own football club.

In fairness, Sir Clive has more coaching experience than Staunton, whose best stab at management to date has been working with a bunch of kids at League One outfit Walsall.

So, after much debating and suggestions that Martin O'Neill and Terry Venables were on the brink of becoming Ireland boss, the incompetent team of cronies who work at the Football Association of Ireland in Dublin have come up with this little belter.

Given the job, apparently, due to the passion he will bring to the job, Ireland's most capped international is not a man who strikes you as a leader of men.

While he was a decent player for Liverpool and Aston Villa, among others, being subdued and often abrasive when faced with the media is hardly the basis for a healthy working relationship with a body of men who have gone a long way to seeing off both Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr from the top job in Irish soccer over recent times.

That former England boss, Sir Bobby Robson, will be working alongside Staunton in some kind of advisory role has softened the blow for some. Yet the overriding feeling among the Irish press pack seems to be that this is a huge shot in the dark by the FAI.

'If the Staunton-Bobby Robson card now carries such thrilling potential, it is tempting to wonder why it took the Association three months to settle upon it,' asked the Irish Independent.

'Both men, presumably, were just as available last October as they are today. Equally, given that they have never worked together in football, it smacks of a gamble that may come to reflect witheringly on the haste with which Kerr was jettisoned. The impression given at the time was that the FAI had a definite plan of succession. This didn't prove to be the case.'

Stan, as he is forever known due to his alleged resemblance to comedy legend Stan Laurel, has kept a predictable silence as news leaked out from his adviser, Michael Kennedy, that he had landed this job. His friendship with FAI chief John Delaney is believed to have been the key to his appointment, yet you have to ask whether he has already been undermined by his new employers' insistence in imposing a senior figure such as Robson in his management team.

'It is the biggest gamble in Irish soccer history,' the Irish Independent continued. 'The fact that the FAI has appointed Robson as a 'guiding mentor' to Staunton shouldn't inspire confidence. It suggests that the FAI has already lost confidence in the new manager.'

Michael Moynihan from the Irish Examiner had an equally damning assessment of this latest farce. 'Irrespective of formal declarations, the FAI's intention seems clear, and having Robson give Staunton the benefit of his experience is a good idea in principle,' he wrote. 'However, in practice it appears fatal to both.

'Ideally Robson would be seen as a font of hard-earned wisdom advising soon-to-be-sole boss Staunton, but in reality the players may view Staunton's leadership as compromised and Robson as a training-ground irrelevance.'

Mention the name of Staunton to many an Irish soccer fan and one incident springs to mind.

Harsh though it is for a man who represented his country with dignity on no less than 102 occasions, anyone who has any sympathies for Roy Keane associate Staunton with the ultimate act of treachery as he stood alongside then Ireland boss Mick McCarthy in his bitter dispute with Keane prior to the 2002 World Cup finals.

Appearing at a press conference to back the manager just as the storm in Saipan blew up in spectacular fashion, the Dundalk-born defender happily accepted the captain's armband following Keane's less than satisfactory exit and was viewed by Keano fans as the ultimate backstabber.

Whatever side of the fence you were on in that little domestic incident will help persuade you whether to support Staunton's accession to Ireland boss at the tender age of 37, so it was no surprise to see McCarthy's key ally in the Keane storm write this glowing tribute to Ireland's new soccer leader.

'Irish football needs a motivator right now and Stan is the man who's been there, done that and has the t-shirt,' states respected writer Cathal Dervan.

'The Irish team, for all their World Cup misgivings, aren't as bad as their current world ranking would suggest. We still have the players - the Givens, Duffs, the Robbie Keanes and the O'Sheas - to make an impression on the international stage. Staunton has been in more trenches than any other Irish player ever.

'All Ireland are lacking right now is leadership, a manager who knows how to get the best out of the players, someone who can inspire them, cajole them and offer them real belief. Someone who has been in the trenches of world football and came out smiling on the other side. Staunton has been in more trenches than any other Irish player ever.'

Being Irish will certainly stand Staunton in good stead as he attempts to cut his managerial teeth at international level. While his critics would never admit as much, McCarthy's biggest crime was that he had an English accent and even to this day, English-born Ireland internationals such as Matt Holland, Clinton Morrison and Andy O'Brien receive more negative press in Ireland than the 'homegrown' stars.

The 'anyone but Venables' camp will be delighted that one of their own has got the job, but Brian Kerr's former assistant, Chris Hughton, is less enthusiastic. He suggests the appointment of Staunton represents 'a major gamble' for the FAI, while Ronnie Whelan, a former team-mate of 'Stan', has been among the first to express his doubts that the partnership with Robson can be successful for Ireland.

You can hardly blame Whelan for feeling a little bemused by the appointment. When this writer interviewed Whelan for Ireland's Sunday World newspaper and quizzed him on whether he fancied succeeding Brian Kerr as Ireland boss back in October, his answer was blunt. 'Of course, I'd love the chance to manage my country,' stated the former Southend boss.

'But I don't think they would consider someone who has done a bit of coaching in the lower reaches of the English league and a bit more in Cypriot football.'

How wrong you were, Ronnie! The long search for an Ireland manager can to an end when it was decided that a man who has never before held a coaching position in the sport of soccer was perfectly suited for the post.

It's a bit like aforementioned oval ball overlord Sir Clive Woodward being given a job in the round ball game before he has learned his trade. Now that would be a silly idea...

Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.