Staunton is out of his depth as sharks close in

A hard-earned point gives the embattled Republic manager little respite from vilification
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The Independent Football

There was a nip in the air here on Wednesday night, but it was not just the falling temperature that had Steve Staunton stepping from foot to foot by the side of the Lansdowne Road pitch as he answered more questions. This was the final reckoning of a week-long inquisition, at times character assassination, and a full-blown sporting (and national) crisis for the Republic of Ireland. And Staunton, with a mix of fatigue and anger in his voice, had clearly had enough.

He felt emboldened by the fact that his bruised and battered - and that was just from the public and media - team had hauled themselves together to secure a draw against the Czech Republic and with it their first point in the qualification campaign for the 2008 European Championships. "I know what it's like," Staunton said of the vagaries of the game. "I've been a player. The ups and downs are frightening. The unfortunate thing is that in my position it's on a monthly basis, not every three or four days."

That position, as manager, has been most in question and, maybe, it is not so unfortunate Staunton only has the players on a limited basis. His demean-our, his lack of lucidity (also apparent in the way he sets out his team), indicates he is certainly not cut out for club management yet. Even before the shocking defeat against Cyprus last weekend there had been murmurs that the Football Asso-ciation of Ireland were uneasy at the risky appointment they made just nine months and six matches ago.

That unease grew on Sunday and Monday as the press Staun-ton received became increasingly hostile. In a rarity for Ireland, supporters, too, had vented their anger outside the GSP Stadium in Nicosia. By Tuesday that fury had turned on John Delaney, the FAI's chief executive, who had selected Staunton and awarded him a four-year contract.

Panic set in. By that afternoon, three hours after Staunton said he had been guaranteed that he would not be sacked regardless of the result against the Czechs, that guarantee was withdrawn. Delaney stood on the steps of the Irish Ministry of Sports for a briefing he had called and steadfastly refused to back his man. By turning a drama into a crisis, he appeared simply in the business of backing himself.

That evening, Delaney met with the FAI president, David Blood, and three legends of the game, John Giles, Liam Brady and Ray Houghton. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss ideas to honour former stars as part of the celebrations when Ireland make the historic move to the 80,000 Gaelic games stadium, Croke Park, next spring.

But, in the Burlington Hotel, the conversation inevitably turned to Staunton, the Irish team and the media. It was already clear that a loss to the Czechs would mean that a crestfallen Delaney, who rued a lack of luck, especially with the illness to Sir Bobby Robson, Staunton's adviser, would soon be searching for a new manager.

By the next day, Delaney's failure to back Staunton, who must surely have been furious at his employer's behaviour, had backfired. Now Delaney appeared disloyal and weak, and he went before the television cameras to try to clarify what he meant. Again he failed to offer sufficient support. Already it had been a farce on the field; now that was being rivalled by events off the field.

But, above all, it was a football problem and, for now, football got them out of it. Shorn of 14 players, the Irish handed competitive debuts to four more and fought out a bold, courageous draw. It wasn't just the fact that they attacked the Czechs which was so heartening. It was that they were able to attack at all.

"We have so many players out. No country in the world could cope with it," Staunton said after-wards. It was a familiar enough excuse, with the manager also reiterating his belief in youth. "I know what we've got coming up through the ranks," he said. "I knew from when I took the job, because I've played against most of them. I've been phoning people to see what their characters are like, doing all the dirty little things behind the scenes."

Dirty little things? It was an odd way of phrasing the necessary work of scouting and researching players but then Staunton isn't comfortable when offering explanations. Take his insistence that "I'm not blaming anyone" for the débâcle in Cyprus, which was followed by the statement, "but if your back four doesn't play well then you are not going to win". So he is blaming his defenders?

Then there was the debate over the exclusion and late call-up of Lee Carsley. The Everton midfielder is playing well, one of the few Irishmen on form, but Staunton steadfastly refused to pick him. Finally Carsley was asked to fly over on the eve of the Czech game. Why wasn't he there in Cyprus?

"He wasn't in the squad," Staunton said blithely. It all leads to a feeling that he is simply out of his depth. "They don't go out there to make mistakes," he said of his players. It could equally apply to the management.

What was not in dispute, however, was the amazing response of the Lansdowne crowd. Indeed, prior to the Czech match, FAI sources indicated that the fans' reaction, as well as the result, would help decide Staunton's fate. In the end there was one of the most passionate atmospheres the old stadium has ever witnessed.

"I think the Irish public showed that they don't believe everything they read either," Staunton said. But he missed the point. Their reaction was a sign of a country's pride and defiance, not a vindication of the regime in charge of their football team who, after all the brouhaha, still sit just off the bottom of Group D.