"It is," said the manager after the Republic of Ireland's appalling display against San Marino last Wednesday evening, "one of the biggest disappointments of my career." Indeed, he was so upset by what he had seen that he could not bring himself to attend the post-match press conference in the small marquee by the side of the Serravalle pitch halfway up Mount Titano.
But it was not the Repub-lic's Steve Staunton speaking. It was Giampaolo Mazza, the 50-year-old Genoa-born coach of the Sammarinese, who was just eight seconds away from recording the greatest result in the tiny republic's football history - and inflicting the worst in Ireland's.
What a contrast to Mazza's apologetic demeanour at the Hotel Ixa the day before. Then he explained, with a sheepish grin, that the first task of being in charge of San Marino - the 195th-ranked team in the world, sandwiched between Somalia and Puerto Rico and with a population of just 30,000 - was to explain to his players one thing: they always lose.
They lost again against the Republic, but it was the visitors who should have felt sheepish and ashamed after the 2-1 victory. Their 2,500 fans inside the two-sided stadium, with no Sammarinese supporters in sight, aimed their beery anger at the players, captain Robbie Keane in particular, and John Delaney, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, who was urged to quit amid the gallows humour-inspired chants.
Ireland's display shocked a nation who had still not recovered from the 5-2 humiliation in Cyprus in another Group D qualification game for the European Championships last autumn, which left Staunton clinging precariously to his job less than a year after his ill-advised appointment.
He hung on then, saved by the spirited draw against the Czech Republic, and will survive again after the latest débâcle. But the double-header against Wales and Slovakia at Croke Park, in front of 76,000 fans, looms large next month. And Staunton, 38, probably needs two victories to ensure it is he who leads the squad on their summer tour to the United States in May.
At Rimini airport, waiting for the return flight to Dublin, he told an incredulous audience of journalists: "It was the character, the character of the side was fantastic... the team spirit came through for us." No one believed him and, 24 hours later, that disbelief was articulated best, as is often the case, by John Giles. "I think he's lost the confidence of the players and the public, and when that happens I think it's better to have a change of manager," the Irish legend said.
That followed a day of recrimination, anger and embarrassment. As they tried to limit the damage the FAI allowed Sir Bobby Robson, Staunton's adviser, to appear on a radio show. Robson is a popular figure in Ireland and fondly regarded but, after his latest battle against cancer, was not the right man to face the hostility, especially as the show's presenter announced that neither Staunton nor Del-aney were willing to appear.
Delaney later did another show and declared the performance "dreadful". While backing Staunton, he also distanced himself from full responsibility for the appointment - which raised more than a few eyebrows - by saying it was taken by others as well. It was Delaney who had promised a "world-class manager" after getting rid of Brian Kerr, only for Staunton to be plucked from looking after Walsall's reserves. If this was crisis management, the officials were performing as poorly as the players.
Everything Staunton has done is under the sharpest scrutiny. His choice of the hardly selfless Keane as captain ahead of the outstanding candidate, Shay Given, or even Richard Dunne, was questioned from the start, as was the selection of Kevin MacDonald, the reserve- team coach at Aston Villa, as his assistant. Staunton's training methods and lax regime, intended to be a contrast with Kerr's "analysis paralysis", have not worked. His surly behaviour and lack of ability to deal with the media, always a concern, has been a real problem.
He said tetchily that the Republic did not have a "divine right" to beat San Marino, claiming that his team were making progress. "Of course we are," he argued. "Have a look at the players that are coming in and gaining experience. We have no choice, that was always going to happen."
Yet there were nine Premiership players who started, plus Ian Harte, who plays in La Liga for Levante. Five were involved in the penalty shoot-out against Spain in the 2002 World Cup. It was no callow, inex-perienced XI. While there were 10 injuries, only Given and Kevin Doyle would definitely have started.
Staunton said he sympathised with the angry fans and reiterated his belief that he will be allowed to carry out his "four-year plan" to bring back the success he helped to establish as a player who earned a record 102 caps. Many of those were gained with Ronnie Whelan by his side. The two were also team-mates at Liverpool, but Whelan was unforgiving in his assessment. "Managers are ultimately judged on results rather than performances," he said. "But whoever came up with that edict probably didn't have to watch what we did on Wednesday."
It is a memory many feel is beyond Staunton to erase.Reuse content