Football: Back where he belongs

Anfield welcomes the return of a prodigal as stalwart Staunton revives the Shankly values
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THE REAL homecoming, back at Anfield in Liverpool red, will have to wait for another week. Today sees a lower key end to a seven-year itch, at Southampton. Luckily, Steve Staunton is a patient fellow. And Kopites with decent memories and a fine eye for history will see the return of their Old Boy for his 91st game as a good omen for the season ahead. Staunton was in the last Championship-winning side at Liverpool, in 1990, in the days of the old First Division. "The squad has always had the potential to win the title," Staunton says. "But inconsistency here is not winning it. That's how high the standards are."

One of the reasons for the relative decline, Staunton himself knows but modestly refuses to spell out, is that the club sold players like him, players who instinctively understood the nature of their inheritance. The leaving of Liverpool might, in one way, have been the making of him, but the day of departure is still regarded with horror. "It was a terrible feeling," he says now. "But I suppose I became my own man." As opposed to the Boot Room's maybe. In retrospect, Staunton rather than Liverpool had the best of the deal. Players with natural loyalties are few and far between in the airport lounge of football's transfer market.

Look back through the Liverpool teams of the Seventies and 80 per cent of the sides were born and bred a bus ride away. Staunton was not quite that close, geographically at least; he was born in Drogheda and brought up in Dundalk, an hour north of Dublin, 40 minutes west of Liverpool. He signed for Liverpool at the age of 17 when he had just finished school and had not yet broken into the first team at Dundalk. His athleticism and refined left foot had come to the attention of Tom Saunders, whose scouting beat included the fertile fields of the border country. Liverpool were playing a League of Ireland XI in Cork in the pre-season of 1986 and the family Staunton headed south to bequeath the second of their four sons to the tender care of the Boot Room.

Staunton himself says he never really knew what happened. One moment he was in the family home, the next starting a career in the toughest of finishing schools. But his father Tom, a member of the Gardai in Dundalk, pinpoints the qualities which brought a club of such stature knocking at the door. "His teachers had told us at 14 that all he wanted was to be a professional footballer," he recalls. "But there is a hellish difference between being good at something, sort of playing along at it, and really wanting to achieve the goal. He had the fitness and the basic strength from very early. But he also had the determination and single-mindedness to succeed. When your kid goes away at 17, it's a worrying time, but somehow you knew he would be all right."

The natural drift of immigrants across the Irish Sea, which had provided the club with a steady stream of talent for generations, had a particular relevance in the case of Staunton. His mother was born in the city and a good supply of aunts and uncles still remain, enough to ensure takers for most of his allocation of tickets this season. But the tragedy of Hillsborough further welded affections and made the decision of Graeme Souness to sell Staunton to Aston Villa for pounds 1.2m in the summer of 1991 the first and the daftest of a disastrous spell. Souness spent the next three years vainly exhorting his players to show the sort of dedication Staunton was parading every Saturday at Villa Park.

"It was strange when he left," Roy Evans says. "For one season only Irishmen were treated as foreigners and because we had another left-back in David Burrows, who was English, that came into consideration. It was unfortunate." Twice, when he was solely in charge at Anfield, Evans tried to retrieve the mistake.

Only this summer, at the end of Staunton's contract, did he succeed in bringing one of the Premiership's most accomplished left-sided defenders back to a team desperate to cast off the Spice Boys tag and retrieve some Shanklyesque virtues.

Ironically, a counter-bid came from Souness, now in charge of Benfica. "He's a quality defender and we're delighted to have him back with us," Evans said. "His experience will be invaluable to us and he can play left- back and in the centre of the defence if we want him to. We'll have a look at how it goes through the season."

What Liverpool lost and have now regained, albeit at the age of nearly 30, is a versatile full-back of pace, strength and sound defensive technique who boasts, as a luxury extra, a left foot of international pedigree. "Sometimes with players like Steve their strength and stamina overshadow their ability on the ball. With Steve it's the other way round, which isn't a bad recommendation, is it?" Mick McCarthy, the Irish coach, said. "He has a wonderful range of pass with his left foot, short or long, and his delivery into the box is second to none. Defenders tend to mature with age. I think there's a lot more to come from him too." With Croatia and Yugoslavia in their qualifying group for the European Championship, McCarthy needs all the experience he can muster.

If there is a weakness, McCarthy says, it is a tendency to coast through training at times, though he would not be the first to suffer from that. The hard work has already been put in on the training ground of the Clau-na-gael Gaelic Athletic Association ground where Staunton was a promising Gaelic Football player and his three brothers - David, Tom and Padhraic - still carry on a family tradition now that their father, a club stalwart, has taken to the stands.

Apart from a brief flirtation with Taribo West, the Nigerian defender, Liverpool have stayed quiet in the transfer market. Yet the arrival of Staunton and Gerard Houllier, the former technical director of the French Football Federation brought in to work alongside Evans, could prove the shrewdest moves of the close season.

Liverpool's ability to pass close and fast is beyond question. On song, they can be breathtaking; off key, hair- tearing. Staunton's left foot will open up new lines of supply for Michael Owen and, when he recovers fitness, Robbie Fowler, easing the strain on Steve McManaman, who has too often had to spark the midfield on his own. And not many goals against will be plotted back to errors on the left side of the defence. Staunton's own goals for the season remain touchingly simple.

"I'm coming back a better player and a better person and I want to help Liverpool win the title," he says. He is, after all, the one player at the club who knows how that feels.