By Liam Mackey
SO FAR so good for Steve Staunton. He persuaded Bobby Robson to join him on the management ticket and then landed the biggest job in Irish football.
Faced with more media attention than he had ever experienced before, he made a smooth transition from ‘No Comment Man’ to talking for Ireland.
In Montreux he was lucky to avoid a Group of Death and in Frankfurt this week he helped the FAI to negotiate a fixture list which delivered almost everything the manager had wanted going into the meeting.
And now? Well, now the hard work really begins. And the first red-letter day is next Thursday in Dublin, when Staunton will unveil his first ever Republic of Ireland squad, for the friendly game against Sweden at Lansdowne Road on March 1.
Hope springs eternal, and there are many, not least in Merrion Square, who sincerely believe that Staunton has the right stuff to galvanise our senior team. One sincerely hopes that he has.
But without wishing to rain on anyone’s parade, the cold, hard question has to be asked: does he have the players? And, on even a cursory inspection of the new manager’s resources, the answer must surely be that Staunton will have to play with a weaker hand than that with which Brian Kerr fell short of securing qualification for a major tournament.
Which isn’t to say, as some insist on arguing, that Ireland’s failure to qualify for Germany was somehow all Brian Kerr’s fault. When Damien Duff told this reporter before Christmas that Ireland had played like a pub team in Cyprus, he actually made a further point of addressing the criticism of Kerr after that game.
"You can’t blame the manager if a player can’t make a 10- yard pass," was how he put it.
In other words, it’s foolish for anyone to think a team can somehow be absolved of responsibility for a failure to deliver, with all the blame being conveniently shifted onto the shoulders of one man.
Clearly it’s the FAI’s hope that Staunton will extract more from the players. And maybe he will - but he can only make a critical difference if the men on the pitch are up to the task to begin with. And that brings us back to the basic question of the calibre of player which Staunton will have at his disposal.
Before he can even name his first squad or oversee his first training session, the new manager appears to be in a weakened position - and not only because, for the Sweden friendly, he will be robbed of the likes of John O’Shea, Andy Reid and Aiden McGeady and, probably, Stephen Elliott through injury.
Those are unhelpful but short-term problems; more worrying is the loss of so many senior figures since last October. Staunton hasn’t ruled out the possibility of an attempt to convince Stephen Carr to rescind his retirement, but there will be no such reprieve where Roy Keane, Kenny Cunningham and Matt Holland are concerned.
"To be honest," Staunton confides, "I spoke to Mattie probably three or four weeks ago and he told me his decision then and I just put something to him and obviously he considered it for a long time, because it took him the best part of a month to come back to me. I’m disappointed, but I fully understand. He’s at that age - I did it myself - he’s probably looking two years down the line. That’s the way you have to look at it. And it probably gives an opportunity to someone else."
But who? Kevin Kilbane and Graham Kavanagh would now seem to have drifted to the top of the pecking order for the central midfield axis but both would need to substantially improve on their performance levels towards the end of the World Cup campaign meaning, in Kilbane’s case, a return to the high of his excellent display in Paris.
Stephen Ireland and Steven Reid also come into the reckoning. Young Ireland is certainly an exciting prospect and one can only hope that his forward momentum doesn’t suffer the kind of slow reverse which afflicted Liam Miller for a time. A resurgent Reid is also very much in Staunton’s thoughts.
"If he rattles one like the one he did against Wigan, I’d be quite happy," says the manager. "He’s done well. He’s played right side, he’s played in the middle, he’s done quite well so far."
Staunton also understands the need for the team’s more established players to step up to the mark, while, at the other end of the spectrum, his trip to Madeira this week to see the U21s and his willingness to maximise the granny rule underline the extent to which he recognises the squad is urgently in need of new blood.
So far, everybody has been asking if Stan can deliver for Ireland. But at least of equal importance is the question: Can Ireland deliver for Stan?