Thursday 27 April 2017

Ten years on from grim night for 'The Gaffer' in San Marino

Last-gasp win in San Marino in 2007 was the beginning of the end of Steve Staunton's reign as Ireland manager, writes Daniel McDonnell

An emotional Steve Staunton watches from his technical area as a nightmare unfolds in San Marino. Photo: PA
An emotional Steve Staunton watches from his technical area as a nightmare unfolds in San Marino. Photo: PA

Ten years have passed since one of Irish football's lowest moments. The day Bobby Robson was sent out to bat for the FAI on 'Liveline'.

When Steve Staunton's fraught time as manager of Ireland is recalled, the heavy defeat to Cyprus is often the reference point.

But, in many ways, the dramatic win away in San Marino on February 7, 2007, was much worse because of the tragi-comedy that followed.

After the nightmare in Nicosia four months previously, the Irish players had the immediate chance to redeem themselves against the Czech Republic and put in a defiant performance in a 1-1 draw.

The San Marino trip was pencilled in for a stand-alone February date, the type which no longer exists on the international calendar, which meant that the stench of a grim performance would linger through the following days.

Quizzed

Stephen Ireland celebrates after scoring a late winner. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Stephen Ireland celebrates after scoring a late winner. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Thus we end up with Sir Bobby Robson on 'Liveline', listening to the views of Brush Shiels and the irate public and being quizzed by Joe Duffy on whether he had Staunton on speed dial.

One woman caller expressed sympathy on his behalf and eviscerated the FAI for putting their ailing international consultant in this position. "Are they that chicken that not one of them could come on? Cowards, cowards!" she raged.

It wasn't a good week for the FAI hierarchy. The form book had indicated it would be a straightforward exercise.

Ireland had thrashed the minnows in the final game at the old Lansdowne in November so there was no reason to believe the return would be taxing. San Marino had conceded 13 goals at home to Germany.

A group of Irish supporters make their feelings known. Photo: PA
A group of Irish supporters make their feelings known. Photo: PA

The trip started off badly. A technical fault meant that the flight had to return to Dublin Airport shortly after taking off. That minor stress was only a warm-up.

Staunton did have a few problems. Shay Given was sidelined so Wayne Henderson was called in with Paddy Kenny out of the picture since his Cypriot disaster. Kevin Doyle was unavailable and Staunton opted to give 20-year-old Shane Long his first cap next to Robbie Keane.

It seemed like the ideal game to introduce him, a qualifier against average opposition in a small multi-purpose stadium on the edge of the Apennine Mountains. But Ireland's display was stodgy.

The FAI had invited a delegation of League of Ireland managers on the trip as they had just taken over the running of the league.

A couple of the bosses were slightly taken aback by the uninspiring nature of the Irish warm-up; they didn't expect to see elite players preparing for a European Championship qualifier by participating in a drill that involved a bit of piggybacking.

Ireland huffed and puffed through a scoreless opening half. Kevin Kilbane said on Newstalk last night that the atmosphere at the break was awful with some cross words exchanged. Kilbane opened the scoring after the restart, yet the performance remained lethargic.

With just a one-goal lead, Ireland risked disaster and it came to pass four minutes from the end with a mix-up between Henderson and Paul McShane giving the stunned Manuel Marani a chance to equalise.

In the press box, the Wi-Fi dropped as frantic rewrites were penned and then binned just as quickly when Stephen Ireland - a rising star that was seven months away from Grannygate - popped up with an injury-time winner.

That didn't change the tone of the commentary, though, and the 2,500 travelling fans made their views clear.

They didn't subscribe to Staunton's view that a win was a win. He argued that San Marino were an improving side, but they would lose their next 18 competitive games and concede 77 goals in the process.

Makeshift

The area for his press conference was a makeshift marquee, which seemed appropriate as it already apparent that Staunton's stay in the top job would be short-lived.

At this point, there is little to be gained from sticking the boot in. It was abundantly obvious that he was the wrong man.

And there was a large rump of Irish fans who sympathised with the rookie boss and blamed the blazers that appointed the 'world-class management team'.

Chief executive John Delaney was the focus of their anger; a 'Delaney Out' banner was produced and he also came in for heavy criticism when Robson was wheeled out to talk to Joe.

The FAI argued that he wanted to do it, but we never got to ask the former England boss if he was a regular listener.

Delaney eventually appeared on Today FM. "I speak on behalf of the FAI but I didn't make the decision to appoint Bobby and Steve on my own", he declared, pointing out it was the board's call.

Much has changed in the intervening period, in the dressing room at least. Long and McShane are the only players who featured that night that have figured in Martin O'Neill's squads for this World Cup campaign.

Anthony Stokes made his debut as a sub just after completing a big-money move to Sunderland and the record books may well show that 2007 was the highlight of his career.

Darron Gibson was an unused sub on the bench, the place where he has sadly spent the majority of his professional life.

The profile of the FAI board has not changed dramatically. Delaney was the youngest and most powerful decision-maker and that remains the case.

Seven members of the 10-man Board of Management that eventually decided to part ways with Staunton are still positioned on the top table.

Delaney's popularity with travelling fans did soar in the run-up to Euro 2012 but banners carrying his name have again become a talking point in the past 12 months. Results on the pitch will not alter opinions.

Ironically enough, Ireland's next match after San Marino was a home date with Wales at Croke Park. Next month, the Celtic neighbours are back in town. The circumstances are completely different but the same result - a 1-0 win - would do nicely.

That's just about the only thing worth replicating from a grim year that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Irish Independent

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