Another fine mess
Along with just 1,462 other souls, Daniel McDonnell was in the Northern Echo Arena on Saturday to see what proved to be Steve Staunton's last game in charge of Darlington
THEY were supposed to celebrate St Patrick's Day in Darlington Football Club on Saturday night. The 1,463 souls who attended that afternoon's game with Barnet were repeatedly informed by the typically enthusiastic PA man that they could gain access to the festivities at a discount price.
When the final whistle blew, however, the angry locals were in no mood to hang around. Right then, it was the wrong place to extol the virtues of Irishness. They wanted Steve Staunton banished, and his signings to suffer a similar fate. A half-time draw offering free Aer Lingus tickets to Dublin drew predictable guffaws from the loudest critics.
On Sunday morning, they got their wish. Chairman Raj Singh may have discussed a new contract with Staunton in recent weeks, but Barnet was just one defeat too many. Already doomed to relegation, a record-low attendance for the visit of the Londoners merely succeeded in adding insult to injury.
Some of that number had already headed for the exit at half-time, after a 45-minute exhibition of incompetence from the hosts which left Staunton with his head in his hands and his players locked in argument as they headed for the tunnel.
It was grim fare. The worst team in English football were living up to their billing in spectacular fashion.
On the face of it, the final act of this venture was a world away from the humiliation which Staunton experienced when his brief tenure as manager of Ireland was ended after the timid 1-1 draw with Cyprus at Croke Park.
After all, that came in front of 54,000 people with the eyes of the nation watching. This swansong was played out in obscurity, watched by a sparse crowd in a stadium sponsored by a newspaper, which contains a hopeless playing surface and houses a team whose jerseys are sponsored by a local pub/hotel.
The Northern Echo Arena may look the part for League Two level, but the 25,000-seater stadium is restricted to a capacity of 10,000 because the roads around it are so poor.
Its finest moment was the staging of an Elton John concert, while its most reliable fix is a Sunday carvery which is trumpeted at every possible opportunity. Fitting, because the entire set-up is mutton dressed as lamb
Nevertheless, there are parallels between the ways in which the two Staunton sagas unfolded.
Before that Cyprus game, billed as a revenge mission after the nightmare in Nicosia, Staunton spoke of his players' desire to settle the score.
He stressed their passion and determination, and how lessons were learned from the mistakes of the past. In general terms, his mantra was that his disastrous Euro 2008 campaign was merely step one of his stewardship and, at least, had provided the opportunity to blood some promising youngsters with a view to the future. Remember the four-year plan?
Granted, he inherited a desperate situation at Darlington in October. In terms of staying in the division, they were already effectively snookered at that point, with the finances in a terrible state.
The upkeep of a large stadium is crippling the Quakers, with the chairman announcing to punters over the weekend that the car park will now be used on Sundays for the considerable cash-cow that is car boot sales.
To his credit, Staunton secured some decent results in the early weeks. Alas, the momentum tapered off and a run of eight games without a win put the gaffer firmly under the spotlight before Saturday. The dreaded vote of confidence was delivered earlier this month.
His Barnet programme notes and comments in the local media in the preliminaries bore all the hallmarks of his latter Irish missives.
"We have had a good week's training in which the players have again knuckled down, worked hard and taken on board what we have pointed out to them.
"We are very much in the process of building for the future. We have brought players in who can move this club forward," he told the programme.
"What I really want is a pre-season with the team," he expanded, to the Northern Echo. "That's the most important time of the year at a football club. It's a time when you get your ideas across and the players know what you're coming from.
"We had a good meeting and went through a few things on the video of the last game.
"Sometimes it's good to watch a game on video because it's right there in front of you. It doesn't lie. It's not that it's harder to talk to the players. I just don't think they listen as easily. But when they see things visually, and you're talking them through it, the penny drops."
Saying all the right things. And then Saturday happened. Words struggle to do justice to how poor the basement dwellers actually were. The punters know that the players lack ability, so it was the lack of fight and the lack of organisation that riled them up.
"We make rubbish teams look world-class," explained one irate fan.
In the long-term, the reign may be defined by the case of Noel Whelan, who you may remember as a promising young Premier League striker with Leeds and Coventry in the 1990s.
Injuries haunted the 35-year-old thereafter, and he flitted from club to club once Middlesbrough cut him loose in 2003. Stan called him up before Christmas and offered a final shot at league football on a non-contract basis.
Ominously, he withdrew on his debut through a muscle strain and lasted two minutes of his comeback when the hamstring went. On Saturday, he was in from the start and the local wags -- the wisecracking type, the capitalised WAGS are a Premier League phenomenon -- seized upon the opportunity for mirth.
A potential town crier greeted the burly Whelan's first lumbering contribution with the assertion that "he can't even run!".
Within a few minutes, it was revised to "he can't even walk!".
The final indignity was when the front man's slowness resulted in a terribly mistimed challenge that almost cut his opponent in half. It was the Darlington hardcore, a few hundred souls behind one of the goal, which led the chorus of "off, off, off".
Staunton paraded the sideline bellowing instructions, dressed in tracksuit and runners rather than the suit he favoured as an international manager. Anger was the emotion when the visitors went ahead courtesy of a sloppy goal from a corner. When they doubled that lead, with a fine counter-attack, he covered his eyes and went for a seat on the bench. The end was nigh.
His Irish players eventually mustered up a fight in that Cypriot joust, rescuing a point with a last-minute Steve Finnan equaliser that proved irrelevant.
The Darlington lads almost repeated the feat this time around, with a few new faces prompting a mini-fightback. An old pal gifted Staunton a glimmer of light when Gary Breen, his defensive partner from the World Cup in 2002 -- could they ever have imagined they'd end up in this League Two mudbath? -- spectacularly sliced past his own keeper.
Then the Quakers were presented with a sitter to restore parity. But sub Josh Gray tripped over himself with the goal gaping. Typical.
The one image that lingered, though, was Darlington's best player, Tadhg Purcell, signed as a free agent after his release from Shamrock Rovers, engaged in a heated on-field debate with his own defenders Alan White and skipper Ian Miller in a stoppage before the interval.
It's been suggested that the newcomers have failed to bond with the long-standing players and there are clearly issues with dressing-room harmony. Regular winger Jeff Smith was turfed out last week for an undisclosed breach of club rules.
Miller's definition of morale-boosting banter in his programme notes was "watching the Irish lads try and get the hang of the DVD player". Lower league humour, evidently.
Purcell has earned the right to vent, proving a successful acquisition: one of the few stand-out players from the incredible figure of 44 that Staunton deployed in a short space of time.
Alas, some of the other acquisitions from Ireland have proved moderate. Scottish midfielder Ross Chisholm, another Rovers outcast, was removed at the break. Gary Dempsey, who returned to the UK following a stint earning ludicrous money at St Patrick's Athletic, missed out on this encounter and has underwhelmed.
Richie Byrne scored an own goal to give Chesterfield victory on his home debut a fortnight ago.
Some of Staunton's other recruits, from the local non-league scene or from the reserve teams of old contacts, would struggle to get a game in the nether regions of the League of Ireland. Once more, the ex-Liverpool defender is dogged by his preference for individuals who struggle to meet the requirements for the task at hand. Remember Alan O'Brien? Remember Joey Lapira?
The tragic reality is that it's difficult to see where Staunton goes from here. That the prelude to the teams emerging from the tunnel was Simple Minds' 'Don't You Forget About Me' seems eerily appropriate.
It's no way for a distinguished career to wind down, toiling in a football backwater taking abuse off embittered souls who are accustomed to the serving up of dross. Considering his wealth, the desire to take up a lost cause is admirable, the very same desire that is masked by the dour exterior and unfortunately sarcastic media appearances which only work when you're winning.
The bottom line is that his team's inability to do just that is the principle reason why the 41-year-old is out of work this morning. Excuses matter little when the evidence is the most damning judge of all.
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