Staunton: EURO dream still alive
It might have taken the Republic of Ireland until 1990 to qualify for a FIFA World Cup™, but it said much for the colour that the team and their fans brought to the finals in Italy, USA and the Far East that their absence was widely mourned last summer.
The Irish themselves were certainly far from enamoured at looking in from the outside as Germany played host to football's biggest party, and for no-one was the experience more unfamiliar than Stephen Staunton, captain in 2002 and the only man to have played in every one of the Republic's FIFA World Cup matches to date. "It was really hard for us a nation not being there," he told FIFA.com. "Then again, if we'd made it to Germany, I wouldn't be here talking to you now… "
This, of course, is a reference to the fact that it is Staunton who now has the job of returning the Republic to the big stage, this after predecessor Brian Kerr paid with his job for the failure to reach last year's global showpiece. The 38-year-old last month celebrated a year in the job , but for all the respect he earned during a playing career that saw him amass a record 102 caps, questions persist about the FAI's wisdom in appointing a man whose only prior management experience was as No2 to Paul Merson at English minnows Walsall.
The presence of former England coach Sir Bobby Robson, appointed alongside Staunton as an International Football Consultant, was intended to offset this potential problem, but the past 13 months have hardly run to script for either half of the Irish 'dream team'. It all began encouragingly enough with a 3-0 debut win over Sweden, but a subsequent and serious deterioration in Robson's health, which saw the 73-year-old undergo surgery to remove a small brain tumour, coincided with a disastrous run of results for Staunton and his injury-plagued team.
Four straight defeats were inflicted, and a nadir was reached with a humbling 5-2 defeat in Cyprus that resulted in the young coach being depicted as 'a muppet' in the Irish tabloid press. It was then, however, with the axe seemingly poised and Robson dispensing advice from his hospital bed, that Ireland's players came out fighting for their embattled coach and just about salvaged their UEFA EURO 2008 hopes with a valiant draw against the Czech Republic followed by a 5-0 thrashing of San Marino.
Germany and the Czechs still gaze down Group D at the Irish from a distance of six points, but with Robson back in the fold and Staunton speaking bullishly of making "a fortress" of their temporary home at the 82,000-capacity Croke Park, there was every reason for the former Liverpool and Aston Villa star to accentuate the positive when he spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: After all criticism and negativity, how important was it to end the last round of qualifiers on a high with those performances against the Czech Republic and San Marino?
Stephen Staunton: It was massive not only for myself, but for the players, because they took a real bashing after the Cyprus game too. I don't have a problem with the reaction to me personally. After a defeat like that, you expect I criticism and I took it on the chin. All I asked was that the players respond, and I think anyone who watched the games against the Czechs and San Marino would be able to see that we got absolutely everything from those lads.
Despite that, Ireland remain fourth in the section, six points behind Germany and the Czech Republic. Do you still believe that you can qualify?
Definitely, we're not giving anything up. The most important thing for us at the moment is to concentrate on getting the right performances and results, then the group table will take care of itself. I firmly believe that there will be points dropped by all three teams above us. The Germans were lucky to get away with a point when they went to Cyprus and I certainly don't think that we have seen the last of the shocks in this group. I also think we showed in our games against Germany and the Czechs that there isn't much between the three of us, and if we can kick on from where we left off in November, we'll definitely climb that table.
How would you compare the task facing you to those your predecessors, Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy, faced when they took the job?
Well, at the moment, we're in a situation where we don't have too many senior players who are well established at the highest level. A lot of our lads are young in international terms while others, unfortunately, are struggling to get regular club football. But the younger ones are gaining in experience all the time and we've also been boosted by the emergence of one or two, like Kevin Doyle, who I'm sure will be make a big contribution. Aiden McGeady is also an exciting talent, although I think he would admit that he has a bit to learn at this level - as do we all. But wingers are a rare breed these days and I like my flair players, so it's good to see the likes of Aiden coming through.
You mention Doyle. Although he's injured at the moment, the fact that he scored against San Marino and has been doing so well in the Premiership with Reading must give you hope that you've found a worthy partner for Robbie Keane?
It's been a real bonus for us because we've needed someone to take a bit of the weight off Robbie's shoulders. He's taken the brunt of the responsibility in that respect for years now and, in Kevin, we look to have someone else we can look to. I do think, though, that we also need more goals coming from midfield and other areas of the pitch.
You start back qualifying with San Marino again next week . Is that a difficult game to approach, given that you won so convincingly in November?
Not for me, and I would hope that the players won't find it tough either. They're out there playing for their country, after all, and as professionals they should be ready to treat everyone with the same respect.
After that, it's Wales in what would be a special game regardless. But the fact it is Ireland's first-ever association football match at the legendary Croke Park will make it all the more so.
That's something for the whole country to relish, I think. But aside from everything else - the stadium, the atmosphere, the opposition - that game is going to be absolutely vital to our hopes, so it's important the players focus on the football rather than the occasion.
You had tears in your eyes after that final game at the old Lansdowne Road. What are your feelings about the refurbishment going on there, and of this temporary move to a stadium that's always been reserved for the traditional Irish sports?
I've so many fantastic memories of playing at Lansdowne Road and I loved the place, so it was sad in some ways. But there's no doubt the revamp was needed and, once it's complete, Ireland is going to have a fabulous stadium on its hands. Where we're very fortunate is that, while work's going on, we can go to somewhere like Croke Park, which is so steeped in this country's sporting history.
For me personally, taking Ireland's soccer team there will be a special moment because it's a stadium I've visited many times before and there's no doubt it has an atmosphere all of its own. We'll have the twice the number of fans we're used to for a start, and if those fans can recreate the Lansdowne roar at this place, it will be spine-tingling. Croke Park's a fabulous arena, but the times I've been there the crowd has been split 50/50 between two counties. This time, 95 per cent of them will be cheering for us, and if that doesn't give the lads a bit of extra motivation, there's something very wrong.
It must also be a major boost to have Bobby Robson back involved after it looked like he might be forced to step down permanently.
Absolutely, it's fantastic for everyone connected with the team. The man lives and breathes football, his enthusiasm is incredible, and if you can't learn from someone like that, you shouldn't be in football.
After the Cyprus game, when he still wasn't well, he was the first man on the phone to me and he couldn't have been more supportive or constructive in the advice he gave. I must say, the partnership is working really well. I feel very comfortable going to him and, if he sees something he thinks could do with changing, he'll tell me. But not once has he interfered, and I'm looking forward to him being part of our team for the games we have coming up.