Hope of every man Jack

Simon O'Hagan talks to Steve Staunton about the high spirits of the Charlton era
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TRY telling Dutch footballers what to do, and you'll more than likely have a walk-out on your hands. Give the Irish team their instructions and the effect is quite the opposite. According to Steve Staunton, the Republic of Ireland midfielder, this is the secret - insofar as it is one - of the extraordinary success the team has enjoyed for nearly a decade and to which they will be desperate to add when they meet Holland in their European Championship play-off at Anfield on Wednesday.

"Jack Charlton's got us playing to a system," Staunton said last week. "We know what we're doing. And we've got tremendous team spirit. Obviously, nobody's going to play outstandingly all the time, but even those who don't play up to scratch will work hard for the rest of the team. We love working hard for each other."

The history of the Dutch is somewhat different. The rampant individualism that has helped them produce some of the world's greatest players has also done for them as a team: each of their last three appearances in major finals - the World Cups of 1990 and 1994, the European Championship of 1992 - has been distinguished by disputes that give the lie to any notion of collective responsibility.

Meanwhile, in an Irish team that prides itself on an absence of stars, Staunton hides his light better than most. If ever there was a player who just got on with it, smoothly keeping things ticking over, then it is the tall, fair-haired Aston Villa and former Liverpool man with the refined left foot and the rare gift of letting the ball do the work.

At an icy and all-but-empty Villa Park last Wednesday, Staunton's class shone through in a reserve team match against Leicester City. Having been out through injury, he was taking the opportunity to play in his only match between Ireland's last European Championship qualifier in Portugal last month and this week's confrontation with the Dutch.

The quiet discernment of Staunton's game made him look all the older and wiser in such predominantly youthful company. Yet although he seems to have been around for a long time - he was winning a League champions' medal with Liverpool as many as six seasons ago - Staunton is still only 26 himself. In seven years of playing for Ireland he has won 61 caps. If he keeps going at that rate, the Irish record must fall to him. At the moment it is held by Paul McGrath with 79 caps, but he is more than nine years older than Staunton.

"I just love playing for my country," Staunton said. "It's such a great honour for me. There have been a couple of times when I've played when I wasn't fit but didn't say so. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have done that. That's how committed I am. But then everyone is that committed."

Staunton is unusual among Irish players not just in that he was born in the Republic - in Drogheda - but in that he has actually played in the Irish League, albeit only a couple of games for Dundalk reserves. As was still the way in 1986, before the five- foreigner rule came in, Irish teenagers with talent were much sought after by leading English clubs, and so the 17-year-old Staunton ("I never really knew what happened") found himself signing forms for Liverpool.

Phil Thompson, the former Liverpool and England defender, was the reserve team coach at Anfield when Staunton came under his wing. "What we noticed about him straightaway was that he already seemed very coached," Thompson said. "We were trying to teach boys to go wide and to get their backsides to the line so everything opens up for them, and Steve was doing all this quite naturally."

There was another quality Staunton had which all managers appreciate and which would stand him in good for his Irish years. "If you told Steve to do something he would do it," Thompson said. "Playing for the Republic, especially in the early days, Steve was ideal for their formula, which was get the ball forward early. He is a great striker of the ball. He can hit it 60, 70 yards and land it exactly where you want it. With experience he has become the architect of almost all their good moves from the left.

"It was the same with Liverpool. Steve was a jack of all trades. He started out as a left-back, but if he was asked to play midfield he'd do it. We even played him up front once and he scored a hat-trick."

Utility status has its drawbacks, however, and as Liverpool began to decline under Graeme Souness, Staunton's indeterminate role made him vulnerable to swings in form and the criticisms of the crowd. It was a difficult time, and the solution - selling Staunton to Villa for only pounds 1.2m in 1991- 92 - was upsetting for him. Souness has since admitted that getting rid of Staunton was his biggest mistake.

So on his return to Anfield, how does Staunton see the match going? "The Dutch are probably better technically, but the physical side - we'll have to see how they cope with that." Perhaps the Irish don't need telling what to do after all.

A decade with Big Jack: The highlights and low points

Feb 1986: Jack Charlton appointed manager of Ireland. There is speculation that the FAI intended to give the job to Bob Paisley.

26 March 1986: Charlton loses his first game in charge - 1-0 to Wales.

18 Feb 1987: Ireland win their first competitive away match for 20 years, 1-0 v Scotland.

11 Nov 1987: Scotland beat Bulgaria to send Ireland to the European Championships on goal difference, their first major finals.

12 June 1988: Ireland beat England 1-0 in their opening game, in Stuttgart.

18 June 1988: Ireland exit finals after losing 1-0 to Holland in Gelsenkirchen.

1988-89: Ireland qualify for their first World Cup finals, in Italy in 1990.

11 June 1990: Their opening match is against England again. Kevin Sheedy scores in 1-1 draw.

25 June 1990: Ireland face Romania in Genoa for a place in the quarter- finals. David O'Leary scores the vital winning penalty in a shoot-out after a 0-0 draw.

30 June 1990: The Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, and the rock band U2 fly to Rome to see their country's clash with Italy. An escaped prisoner readmits himself to prison to make sure he does not miss the match. They lose 1-0.

1991 Ireland fail to qualify for the European Championships, the first time Charlton has failed to take his team to a finals.

17 November 1993: Ireland qualify for the USA '94 World Cup after a 1- 1 draw against Northern Ireland. Billy Bingham, the North's manager, accuses Charlton's English-born players of being "mercenaries".

18 June 1994: Ireland beat the eventual runners-up, Italy, 1-0 in Giants stadium after a stunning strike from Ray Houghton.

23 June 1994: Charlton becomes involved in a touchline argument while trying to bring on John Aldridge as a substitute against Mexico. He is later fined pounds 10,000. The team lose 2-1.

4 July 1994: Ireland again go out at the hands of Holland, 2-0.

15 Feb 1995: Friendly with England in Dublin abandoned after away fans riot.

15 Nov 1995: Charlton's team lose 3-0 to their group winners, Portugal, in Lisbon and are forced to face a play-off match against Holland at Anfield.