Staunton sets steady course for Ireland

The principles that made Liverpool such a great club shaped the new manager of the Republic of Ireland. He talks to Jason Burt in Dublin about his ambitions for his country
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Steve Staunton leans forward in his chair and reflects on the apparent tension of being an international manager after a career in football in which he kept his counsel in public as determinedly as he defended his team's goal. "Alan Hansen gave me a great piece of advice early on in my career," Staunton says of his dealings with the media. "Say 'hello' to them and keep walking. And that's what I did all my life."

Journalists are not, usually, welcome company. "If I was a player," Staunton, who was 37 in January and whose retirement was only confirmed when he was asked to take charge of the Republic of Ireland, "I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now." He is only doing it, he readily admits, because he wants to be "accommodating" and he is only being accommodating because he recognises that it is part of his new job.

The fact that Staunton was given the post, after higher-profile names such as Martin O'Neill, Sir Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables had been bandied about, was, he accepts, a surprise. "Of course it's a shock," says Staunton, whose first match as a manager is against Sweden in Dublin tomorrow night. "I was playing for Walsall."

It was a shock to the media as well. One Irish newspaper published a photomontage of him and Sir Bobby Robson, who was appointed as the "international football consultant" - in other words an older, guiding hand - as "Laurel and Hardy". Wasn't that cruel? "Listen," says Staunton, "I'm Irish - I can laugh at myself." Not welcoming then? "Well, obviously, you don't know us," he replies of a nation he believes are a "different breed". "That's the way we are," he adds.

But, still, was it not similar to when The Sunmocked up the then England manager, Graham Taylor, as a turnip? "Ah, that was out of order," is Staunton's reply. So there's no parallel? "It's Stan Laurel," he says, referring to the "Stan" nickname by which he is known. "They were trying to pick on that. It was a bit of fun."

There is also confusion about the role of Robson (pictured below with Staunton). "Confusion to you lot," Staunton says. "It's my backroom team. It's going to be flexible. There might be occasions where Bobby sits in the stands for the first half and then I say, 'Come on Bob, we know how they're playing, come down to the bench'." So what kind of character will he himself be in that dug-out? "I'm frightened to think," Staunton laughs. "You have to be calm but I find that very hard at times. I will show my emotions, don't worry."

The newspapers may have poked fun, but Staunton is well used to dealing with "mickey-taking". It is the currency of professional football, especially for someone who, as a callow teenager from Dundalk, started his career at the most successful club in England.

Staunton may have finished in League One and spent six seasons at Aston Villa, but it will always be to Liverpool that he turns, as with Hansen's advice, for his reference points. "This is Anfield" may as well be printed through him as if he were a stick of rock.

"Strong characters, strong dressing-room," Staunton reflects on the club he supported and played for in two spells. "But you have to be your own man in there." Not that he found it easy even to enter. "You couldn't just walk in," he says of the prospect of sitting alongside Steve McMahon, Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan. From signing in 1986 he progressed "pretty quickly" into the first team - but still got changed with the reserves. "It's not that I wasn't allowed. It was, well, you just didn't do it."

With his pale, boyish features and his County Louth accent, something he has retained despite two decades in England, he was "very quiet until I went to Liverpool. And then you soon have to stick up for yourself."

But doing that has never really been a problem. Staunton may have been reserved in public and is still now - revealing that on scouting missions he slips into Premiership grounds at "10 to three. I watch the game and go" - but don't be fooled. In The Autobiography Niall Quinn writes about "Stan's" ability to "drop" team-mates "with a one-liner like nobody else can" and it is clear suffering fools, or being dominated, is not part of his fiercely competitive personality.

Even when he was offered a trial at Liverpool his initial reply was: "Yeah, but let me go to other clubs first so I can get my fitness up and have my best chance". He was persuaded otherwise and after 10 days was awarded a contract. "I remember Tom Saunders [a Liverpool coach] coming to watch the reserves play Stafford Rangers and he threw a nice little spanner in the works by saying, 'I've just come to watch you and if things go well, we'll sign you'. So you can imagine how I felt. I went as white as a ghost and thought, 'Oh my God. If I play bad tonight, that's it'." Saunders' words were "deliberate" to see how the 18-year-old Staunton reacted. "That was the Liverpool way," Staunton says.

Even his first memory of Lansdowne Road is influenced by Liverpool. He was a ball-boy, aged eight, when the Anfield club came to play a friendly against Dundalk.

Staunton is now back at Lansdowne. Has he thought about that first team talk? "Of course I have," he says. "That will be paramount. It's like anything that goes on - I want a nice tight ship. It's not for your ears. It's not for the fans' ears. It will be for us." His code is clear. Team first, always - and what happens in the dressing-room stays in the dressing-room. The Liverpool way.

"It's getting that special bond between them. We need to create that, well not create it because we have always had it, but reignite it," Staunton says. And that is about as close as he will go to criticising the regime of his predecessor, Brian Kerr, who, although immaculate in elements of his preparation, dulled the senses of his players and failed to qualify for two tournaments.

"It's not rocket science," says Staunton, who is likely to name Robbie Keane as his captain for tomorrow. "We have to play to our strengths." That has been interpreted as a return to the more direct football of the Jack Charlton era, but that is a notion dismissed by Staunton, who played in three World Cups, including Ireland's Italia 90 campaign, earning a record 102 caps.

What he wants to recapture is something more joyous:team spirit. "I think we're unique," he says of the Irish mentality. "You only have to see the amount of English coming over to Ireland every weekend who love Ireland. You go around the world and everyone loves the Irish. We are happy go lucky. But we'll graft."

In the recent, failed World Cup qualifying campaign there were 25,000 Irish in Paris, 12,000 travelled to Cyprus. "Not many countries can do that or want to do that. The supporters want to be there." It helps, he says, that he is a "fan" with "the responsibility of getting back the good times".

The Irish will not be in Germany this summer, of course, but his remit is clear. It would be wonderful to reach Euro 2008 but, with a four-year contract, the 2010 World Cup is the more realistic target. If Ireland fail, he says, they will "go down fighting".

"Obviously, success for Ireland is going to be totally different than for England," Staunton says. "Success for us is to qualify. To give the supporters something to cheer about when they are travelling in their thousands." The "just being theory" is one that would make Roy Keane choke. He sees it as an indictment, rather than a cause for celebration, and it brings to mind the enmity between the two men which exploded before the 2002 World Cup when Keane walked out in a maelstrom of uncontrolled frustration and anger and Staunton took over as captain.

Saipan, the island where it all happened, is not a welcome topic. "It's gone. It's in the past," Staunton says. But did it not help shape him as a leader? "I was a leader before that. I have always been a leader and I didn't need the armband to tell me. That's the way I am. But that's all history."

The strength he showed, however, was not lost on John Delaney, then the treasurer of the Football Association of Ireland, now its chief executive and the man who identified Staunton as manager. "I can't speak for John but something impressed him very much," Staunton says. "And I would like to think how I went on previous to that had an influence as well. People know how much the lads respected me. That's what you need."