How 'Kermit' has gone from hero to national lampoon

Steve Staunton played at three World Cup finals. Now the Republic of Ireland manager is seen as an embarrassing failure, writes Jason Burt in Dublin
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Steve Staunton has been lampooned mercilessly since his appointment as the manager of the Republic of Ireland. Now it is a whole nation that is feeling ridiculed.

The 5-2 defeat by Cyprus, in the unimposing environment of the GSP Stadium in Nicosia, has pricked Irish pride and all but ended any hope of qualifying for the European Championship. And that is just two games into the Group D campaign with, tonight, the Czech Republic lying in wait.

But more than that it a country's sporting psyche that has been damaged. The defeat left everyone embarrassed - and just how far back did they have to go to find something comparable? In the end they plumped for 1970 - when the Republic lost 6-0 in Austria. But that was not against opposition ranked 103rd in the world. Even the Irish President, Mary McAleese, has weighed in. "Well it wasn't great, was it now?" she said. "We were outclassed."

Following that Austrian defeat the hard work began to drag the Republic back to respectability. It culminated in reaching three World Cup finals. Staunton played in all of them. What makes it all the more poignant is that this no-nonsense defender, who collected 102 caps, was a fearless warrior, an uncompromising combatant who fought the odds, and who talked about pride and passion when appointed at Dublin's Mansion House earlier this year, is overseeing the current debacle.

Yesterday, as he walked to meet the media, Lansdowne Road workmen whistled the "Laurel & Hardy" theme tune - much to Staunton's annoyance - in reference to his nickname of "Stan". Earlier he had been depicted as "Kermit the Frog" while pundit after pundit has attacked him. The "muppet" reference resonates with the Irish as it was a favoured put-down of Roy Keane.

"Everything is fine," Staunton said when asked, again, if, come a fifth defeat in six games, he will be sacked. "I'm going to be here, no matter what's written. No matter what happens I will be here next month. We are what we are. I'm proud to be Irish and I know we'll get this right. There is not much more we can do. We have to ride the storm."

But confusion has always surrounded his regime. There was confusion when he was given the job, aged 36, and promoted from assistant coach at Walsall having never managed a team in his life. John Delaney, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, had promised a "successful manager who can lead us to the next tournament".

That followed Brian Kerr's failure to qualify for the last World Cup Finals and Delaney's wish-list was undoubtedly ambitious, headed as it was by Martin O'Neill. Terry Venables was also on it, and wanted the job, but the FAI thought he was a chancer. Now they appear to have no chance.

There are mitigating circumstances. "I've 16 players out," Staunton lamented of his injury crisis and there were 12 crosses next to the squad list - plus others who could not even make that. Yesterday Aiden McGeady limped out of training - "It's typical of what's happening. A freak accident," Staunton said - and back to Celtic while Paddy Kenny, Kevin Doyle and Stephen Ireland all returned to their clubs. Tonight will see three more competitive debuts. Brighton's Wayne Henderson, whose recent opponents have been Yeovil and Chesterfield, will be in goal.

It also makes Staunton's mistreatment of Everton's Lee Carsley even more puzzling. The midfielder wanted to end his international retirement but was ignored - until a late call on Monday and was at training yesterday. "No country in the world could cope with 16 players out," Staunton added. "The Irish public aren't daft. They know that."

But the Irish public is angry and the anger is also directed at Delaney, the man who appointed Staunton. He steadfastly refused to back Staunton yesterday. It appeared that Delaney was only in the business of saving his own skin.

Yet only last week Delaney said Staunton was safe, even if the Republic finished bottom of the group, and on Saturday night, the FAI president, David Blood, told the players there was full faith in the manager. The development of the team was, Delaney said, "a marathon, not a sprint". Now he is running for his own life.

Staunton has not been helped by the illness which removed Sir Bobby Robson from the scene. It is unlikely that the man Delaney called "Staunton's lieutenant" will ever return. With hindsight, appointing him was too much for a 73-year-old. But even with Robson matters were muddled. "You cannot legislate for collective or individual errors," Staunton said yesterday. He was talking about Cyprus. Inadvertently, he summed up the whole saga.

Republic of Ireland (4-5-1, probable): Henderson (Brighton); Finnan (Liverpool), O'Shea (Manchester United), McShane (West Brom), Kelly (Birmingham City); Reid (Charlton Athletic), Carsley (Everton), Quinn (Sheffield United), Kilbane (Wigan Athletic), Duff (Newcastle United); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur).

Czech Republic (4-1-3-2): Cech (Chelsea); Ujfalusi (Fiorentina), Grygera (Ajax), Rozehnal (Paris St-Germain), Jankulovski (Milan); Kovac (Spartak Moscow); Polak (Nuremberg), Rosicky (Arsenal), Plasil; Koller (both Monaco) Baros (Aston Villa).

Referee: B Layec (France).