Beware another fine mess, Stan

Cyprus is an eventful venue for Irish managers - the pressure on Staunton is growing
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The Independent Online

For a nation of such modest achievements in football, Cyprus have proved astonishingly influential in the fortunes of the Republic of Ireland over the years. It was there that John Giles decided to resign as manager, after the first qualifying game for the 1982 World Cup, even though the Irish won.

It was there that Roy Keane produced one of the most remarkable performances in his remarkable career to help propel Ireland to the 2002 World Cup. And it was on the Mediterranean island that the fate of Brian Kerr as manager was sealed last autumn. Again the Irish were victorious - although such was the paucity of their performance that it felt like a traumatic defeat - before ultimately failing to reach last summer's World Cup.

And it is in Cyprus, in the same venue, the GSP stadium in Nicosia, that Stephen Staunton will take his Ireland team for a qualification game for the 2008 European Championships on Saturday evening. It will be only their second match in Group D but, already, with Germany and the Czech Republic - whom Ireland face the following Wednesday - having quickly gathered six points and an impressive goals tally, anything less than a victory is unthinkable.

It means the pressure on Staunton is growing. His words on his appointment, that he was building a squad not for the Euros but for the 2010 World Cup and that patience was required, hence the decision of the Football Association of Ireland to award him a four-year contract, have been put to one side. Instead the former Liverpool and Aston Villa defender, a player who was awarded 102 caps for his country, has endured probably the shortest honeymoon period in international football.

His credibility was questioned from the start. On the day he was given the job Staunton, along with Sir Bobby Robson, who was appointed the FAI's international football adviser and given a mentoring role, was lampooned in one Irish newspaper, which depicted the pair as Laurel and Hardy.

The inspiration for that was from Staunton's nickname as a player, "Stan", and it has not helped that he continues to be referred to in that informal way by FAI officials, by the media and, crucially, by the Irish players. Many were his team-mates in 2002, and Staunton has not paid attention to the need to create distance.

That did not seem to matter when they swept Sweden aside 3-0 at Lansdowne Road. Stories of Staunton's more relaxed approach - allowing players a night on the town, followed by a lie-in and inviting their families back to the team hotel after the match - seemed to strike the right note after Kerr's hectoring, dispassionate approach. Staunton also did not take up the option of two friendlies in May, even though it meant he lessened his preparation time for this campaign, because he felt the players needed a break.

Instead they played one match and were comfortably beaten at home by Chile. That was followed by a rout against Holland in August, which prompted the player-turned-pundit Eamon Dunphy to lambast Staunton on the front page of the Irish Daily Star newspaper. No longer was Staunton the comedian Stan Laurel. Now he was a "clown", and one who must go immediately.

It has been a rocky ride for the FAI and their chief executive, John Delaney, who eased out Kerr and has invested much in the success of the new regime. The Irish have pinned their hopes on the 37-year-old becoming their Jürgen Klinsmann or Mark Hughes, someone whose first job in management was as national coach of the country they played for with such distinction.

It may still happen. After all, there are significant mitigating circumstances. Injuries are biting hard. The biggest loss is undoubtedly goalkeeper Shay Given, but also out are Steven Reid and Graham Kavanagh, while there are doubts over Damien Duff, Andy Reid and Stephen Elliott. Players who have retired, such as Keane and Kenny Cunningham, have not been adequately replaced and too many of the young Irish pretenders, Liam Miller for one, have failed to step up to the plate. It makes the decision to exclude the in-form Lee Carsley all the more puzzling. The midfielder retired from international football but, unlike Stephen Carr, has so far not been welcomed back.

It has added to an air of decline around the squad. Mark Lawrenson, the former Ireland defender, commented simply that they lack the necessary quality to make an impact at the highest level. It is an assessment which is hard to dispute. "Realistically we have no chance of qualifying for Euro 2008," he said. "Outside of Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane you have a group of average players who are not good enough."

The statistics are also depressing. Ireland are now on their longest run - 13 matches - without a win against a first, second or third seeded side in a qualification group since 1972. They have lost their past three games. They have only scored four goals in eight matches - and they all came against the Swedes and in Cyprus last time.

Not that Ireland have a great history of success in this competition. They have qualified for for the finals of the European Championships just once - reaching Euro 88, when they famously beat England in Stuttgart. They lost there to the Germans last month, and that defeat was compounded by the fact that Staunton was dismissed from the dugout, for kicking a bottle of water in anger, and will serve a touchline ban in Nicosia. Sir Bobby will also be missing in Cyprus as he recovers from surgery to remove a brain tumour, and it has led to a feeling of trepidation around the fixture. Ireland must win. But they are not sure they will.

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