Staunton: How incompetent decision-making tarnished one of our greats
It’s very possibly the last time John Delaney made a footballing decision as CEO of the FAI. It’s also likely the decision that led to him crystalising his approach to self-preservation at the summit of Irish football -- appoint ‘independent’ parties for decision-making from here on in.
‘Stan’ was a close drinking and golfing friend of Delaney’s, a relationship that was born of mutual respect on the eve of the ’02 World Cup when Staunton, representing the players, sat across a table from Delaney (the then, Treasurer of the FAI), to negotiate the Players’ pools for the upcoming tournament.
Delaney, a lover of deal-making, immediately saw in Staunton a lot of the characteristics he fancied of himself: a shrewd and tough negotiator, a man who was trusted and respected by his peers, the fans, the media, and one that could hold an aura of arrogance about him that was deemed an endearing, rather than despicable, trait.
It is therefore no wonder, that, years down the line, when the nation languished after Brian Kerr’s ‘risk-averse’ (let’s call it) tenure as Irish manager, and Delaney promised a “world class” replacement, he really meant it when he said that Staunton was the “best man for the job”. Akin to Alex Ferguson’s personal appointment of David Moyes, experience or ability-to-do-the-job is only a ‘nice to have’ when arrogance is hiring. A replica of itself is what seals the deal.
The Infamous Board
The decision to appoint Staunton sounded sensible to the three man board, spearheaded by Delaney, who were as equally unqualified for the job as their applicant - it was Staunton who put himself forward for the post initially, and not the other way around. He also brought with him Bobby Robson as an advisor, which would no doubt resonate with any employer. And Jurgen Klinsmann, an ex-international with no managerial pedigree, was proving an astute appointment by the Germans (within months he would guide them to a World Cup semi-final). He was also well respected by majority of the players, particularly after having taken over captaincy duties due to Roy’s illness in Saipan. He was our record cap holder, and most importantly for Delaney and the board at the time, he knew what put em under pressure meant:
Stan would “instil passion and pride back into playing” for Ireland, according to Delaney.
But there is no question that this was a mistake that never should have happened. Delaney probably points to the value of hindsight in his private circles – but the hard truth is that the simplest of men should have been able to calculate what was at stake here, and see that every permutation (save the Disney one where everyone lives happily ever after) pointed to disaster, and the possible tarnishing of one of our countries greatest fooballing legacies.
And that’s certainly what ensued.
The legacy still breaths
Last week Aston Villa posted a #OTD (on this day) tweet, remembering Staunton’s move to Villa from Liverpool in 1991 for £1.1M. It was accompanied by two photos. One of him in action, and the other a headshot. It’s only fair to admit, my immediate reaction was to wince and just hope that the fans went easy on him in the unforgiving fire-pit that is Twitter’s commentary section – but the reality was incredibly pleasant reading. Staunton’s legacy is alive and well. Aston Villa fans were praising “possibly the best left foot ever made”, the “great player that had everything”, the “versatile”, the “wand of a left foot”, the “first name I had on my shirt”, the “massive legend”, and the “bargain” that “would be £30M today”.
Yes, Steve fucking Staunton.
What the hell has happened us? Seriously. Are we really that fickle that we’d prefer to remember the guy who spent 18 months trying his heart out to lead the country in doing something he was unqualified to do, rather than remember him for the 14 years of exemplary service he gave our country doing what he did exceptionally? The more than a century of caps (more than Duffer, Quinn, Cascarino, McGrath). He’s the single and only thing in common with all three of our World Cup's (other than the colour of our jerseys and the lack of trophies from each). The sixteen times he captained our country (incidentally one less than what he served as manager). The two obscene goals he scored straight from corners in a green jersey. The stupid list of reasons to love this man goes on, yet most opt to prefer the joke.
In comparison, Alan Shearer relegated Newcastle United – the ultimate sin – yet, six years later they erected a statue in his name outside their ground – “legend”. Maradona, possibly the highest profile example of an ex-player management flop -- of course he’s forgiven, but do people even care to remember it now? Absolutely not, he’s Maradona for God’s sake. We only remember him for his on-the-pitch brilliance.
So, why do we find it so hard to follow suit with Staunton?
The evolving game
His tenure was a calamity, there is no question about that (although, he does share the same loss percentage as Mick McCarthy). He was caught blind at a time where football was on the peak of irrevocable change. Press Conferences were going from a casual get-together with a few close-knit journalists to a room full of writers, dissecting, and looking for a headline. Coaching was becoming a tacticians and statisticians game, and less so a motivators one. Players were becoming wealthier, and in turn, engulfed with self-belief that left no need or room for heroes (Staunton still claims, “Robbie looked up to me”. Maybe, and only, as a teammate, Stan) – the historical need for managers to motivate, was fast being replaced by their need to facilitate.
Staunton, and the hiring board were totally blind to the change. His “I’m the gaffer, and at the end of the day whatever I say, goes” at his unveiling, was the first indication of it. His disastrous press conferences when under growing pressure, the second. The FAI circus at the time also didn’t help – sending Tottenham a call up message for Andy Reid, when he had since moved to Charlton, a perfect example of which – and all just added to the growing air of negativity around Irish football, of which Staunton was the mascot.
A 94th minute winner in San Marino was the start of the end (if it wasn’t already there), and it all culminated a few months later with a 1-1 draw at home to Cyprus, and an interview Delaney gave on RTE afterwards where he refused to back Staunton, his friend, and his “best man for the job”. Staunton pleaded with Delaney for more time, insisting he could turn it around, but the FAI blazers congregated and made the decision any politician would when fronted with an angry crowd seeking change – they aborted their “master plan”.
Once the media subsided their Staunton-annihilation, the autopsy was mainly directed at Delaney, who albeit crestfallen (an image we would never see today), redirected the blame (an action we often see):
“I didn’t make the decision to appoint Stephen Staunton on my own”.
It was damage limitation for the FAI chief who had only recently being heralded by Bill O Herlihy as doing a “great job up until the Staunton appointment”. But very little was done to try and salvage or repair any of the reputational damage that Stan endured because of this horribly irresponsible appointment. And still today, that fact remains – his name sits in the ‘buried and best forgotten’ file, alongside newly added items like the treatment of the ladies team, the LOI brand report, Bray and Athlone’s debacles, Blatter’s brown envelope, and so on.
Having gone through a divorce and his father's long battle with lung cancer just prior to taking the Irish job, Stan returned to his home in the UK a beaten man. Other than a few further stints in management at Leeds (assistant) and Darlington, and a few behind-the-scene roles as a scout at ‘Boro and Sunderland, he has remained predominantly out of the public eye. He started a football foundation in 2014, but little seems to have come of it, and he was sadly declared bankrupt two years later having invested in the infamous Ingenious Media, a scheme that caused many high profile sportsmen to lose their fortunes. At the time of his bankruptcy declaration, his documentation said he was unemployed.
We're definitely better than this
Sometimes one wonders if the same would’ve been repeated and it was another ex-legend that had the tenacity and self-belief to step up and go for the job, like Stan did -- say, Denis Irwin -- would we now judge him by his post-football failures, rather than his brilliances on the pitch too?
What an embarrassment, if so.
Steve Staunton deserves a legacy that’s reflective of what he delivered as an Irish sportsman. He deserves a fan base in his home country that remembers his brilliance with pride, and not just those in other countries. He remains a big fan of Dundalk and League of Ireland football, also - never shying from his love of the home that has since cooled its interest in him.
His downfall was his own blind ambition, and his naivety to believe in his friend from a high place.
He’s one of our own. And a great one.
That reminder is well overdue.