So what’s the plan Stan?

BEFORE we say hello to Steve Staunton the gaffer, we should bid farewell to Steve Staunton the player.

Virtually lost in all the hype and hoopla surrounding Staunton’s appointment as the new Irish manager, is the fact that he has now officially retired as a professional footballer, playing his last game for Walsall on New Year’s Eve.

Of course, he didn’t know at the time that it was to be the final bow of a 20 year career but at least he had the satisfaction of ending it on a high, helping his side to a 2-0 win over Blackpool.

“Of course, I’m going to miss it,” he says. “That’s what I’ve done all my life since I could walk. The body tells you that you can’t go on forever, although I would have continued on this season. But when the job came along I knew I couldn’t do both so I decided that was it.”

So no chance then that we’ll get to see Ireland’s first player-manager since Johnny Giles? He laughs. “I was debating with myself whether to give myself 30 seconds maybe, but no, I don’t think so.”

For a man who always preferred to let his boots do the taking, the last few days have made significant new demands of Ireland’s most capped player, beginning with the nerve-wracking experience of his public debut in the Mansion House last Monday. “I slept on Monday night, that’s for sure,” says Staunton, “I didn’t sleep the night before.”

By general consensus, Staunton came through the ordeal with flying colours, although there were still loose ends left flapping in terms of the precise role that would be played by his mentor Bobby Robson. On Monday, Staunton’s own comments seemed to suggest that Robson might not necessarily even attend all the Irish games but, speaking three days later in the FAI headquarters in Merrion Square, the new manager clarifies the issue.

“Of course he will be at games,” he says. “We’re going to work as a team. I see the four of us as one. But it’s going to be done my way. Kevin (MacDonald) is there to coach, Alan (Kelly, goalkeeping coach) knows his job and Bobby knows what he’s coming on board for.”

But will he be in the dug-out or the stand? “I’ll sit down with Bobby and talk about it. I’m not saying he will or he won’t. All four of us want what’s best for the country and if we can get that right, that’s the main thing.

“There won’t be a problem and there’s no conflict at all. I think you’d have a major problem if Bobby was interested in the manager’s job. But he has said himself that he isn’t. Bobby’s there to help me and guide me but I will have the final say.”

Staunton raised laughter in the Mansion House when he replied to a question about the brand of football Ireland would play by suggesting that they might bamboozle the opposition when they got them to Croke Park.

However, it can now be confirmed that he has no plans to introduce the handpass to Irish soccer. And nor, it seems, will be shackled by the tyranny of the rigid system.

“The lads are more comfortable probably with 4-4-2, most of them play in that system,” he concedes. “But as you’ve seen with Damien (Duff), he’s playing in a 4-3-3 system. It’s about getting in their heads really. Look, at the end of the day, it’s 11 v 11. If you want to start out 3-5-2, 5-3-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-4-2 - you can go on and on. But it’s very rare in a game where, whatever system you started out playing, you can look on the pitch and go, yeah, there’s the 4-4-2 or whatever. Because it doesn’t happen like that.

“I want to be flexible and fluent. I want our lads to have the license that, when we’ve got the ball, we go and play.”

How big an influence on his philosophy of football were his Liverpool days?

“A big influence. But Liverpool played effective, fluent football. The ball went into the frontman as early as possible. Now, everybody tries to do that but what you want to happen is the ball to go in with quality to the front man. We will play with a high tempo, there’s no bones about that. We have to. That’s something that’s in our make-up. We have to play that way, to frighten teams.”

As a player, Staunton amassed plenty of experience in different areas - full-back, centre-half, midfield and, as he reminds me when I rudely overlook the fact, striker. In fact, Staunton made Anfield history in his early years at the club by scoring a hat-trick as a substitute, after he’d come on for Ian Rush in a League Cup game against Wigan.

And did Kenny Dalglish promptly drop Rushie for the next game? “Well, I was very disappointed,” Staunton deadpans. “As Ronnie Whelan reminded me, that game was in midweek and on the Saturday I was back on the bench. And as a little reminder to Kenny I whacked him in training.”

Staunton says that he likes to think he has a good football brain but it’s the passion and pride he brought to his play - especially with Ireland - which has commanded most of the column inches since his name was first linked with the manager’s job. Staunton believes that the Irish are unique in this regard, and that these characteristics have to be reflected in our football.

“We are a different breed,” he insists. “What other country could take 35,000 to Paris? And we’re only a tiny nation. We’re a passionate race and we need to re-ignite the little something special in the team that maybe hasn’t been there. That’s what the lads have to find themselves. I know from speaking to a few of them that they’re upbeat. Those that I’ve rung and couldn’t get through to have been straight on the phone to ring me back. I see that as a plus.”

And how do they address you? “I’m still Stan but I’m the boss now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll have a laugh and joke with them but at the end of the day if they step out of line ... I’ve done it myself and got punished for it.

When was that? “Too many times to mention,” he grins. “That’s the nature of football. We try and do the best we can but, I’m not daft, in a squad of 20 or 30 players you’re going to have someone step out of line sometime. I’ll have to deal with it and be strong about it so that they’ll know, yes, we can have the craic but this is what we do.”

Getting the balance right between work, rest and play is key.

“The more relaxed and happy the players are the better they’re going to perform,” he says. “You’ve got to remember that these lads are working their socks off at clubs day in and day out and a change is as good as a rest. Obviously there’ll be times when we work hard but you can’t flog people who have been going through the mill for the last six or seven months.”

So what did he make of the big issue that was made of Robbie Keane’s night out in the week before the France game? “I didn’t see the big issue to be honest. Five days before a game? Robbie knows his own body and if he was given license to go out on that night, I don’t see the big problem. Obviously, it made headlines and became a big issue.”

But you wouldn’t have a problem with someone having a jar five nights before a game.

“Five nights,” he laughs, “I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.”

You ask Steve Staunton if he feels any sympathy for Brian Kerr. “He done his job,” he replies. “Unfortunately - I don’t know what went on - but people weren’t happy, we didn’t qualify and they didn’t renew his contract, it’s as simple as that. If Brian was at the World Cup I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

And would the new man be happy to take advice, if it was offered, from his predecessor? “I would listen to anybody. I’d be daft not to. I might pick up that one little thing that will be important.”

Staunton has already spoken about how he is seeking to blend youth and experience in the Irish team, how he’ll talk to Stephen Carr and maybe Gary Kelly about reconsidering their retirements and also keep tabs on rising stars like Stephen Ireland and Kevin Doyle. He has also made clear that he will utilise the parentage rule to ensure that candidates like Lee Trundle are given a chance to prove themselves.

But he also knows that he needs to strike the right attitude - inside the camp and beyond.

“We need to get into the lads heads how we want them to play,” he says. “It’s not going to be rocket science, we’re not going to ask them to do something they can’t do. We’ll try and get our ideas over to them as quickly as possible but, basically, I want them to enjoy coming in and I want to re-ignite the country.

“Everyone is looking for a lift and I see my job as very important in that role. I’m the manager of what could happen. Can we get this up and running again instead of all the negativity that’s been going on? We want Lansdowne Road or Croker buzzing.”

Staunton has plenty of personal experience of how Irish football can set the whole country buzzing, from Italia 90 through Giants Stadium to Ibaraki. With Bobby Robson currently on a week’s holiday, you ask if they have had time to exchange memories of a certain night in Cagliari? “No, I didn’t want to wind him up too much,” Staunton laughs. Ireland’s first ever World Cup finals game, when Kevin Sheedy’s goal secured a vital point against England - and saved the nation’s sanity into the bargain - is one that stands out in Staunton’s memory.

“Prior to the game,” he recalls, “Jack was half thinking of not playing me because Chrissie (Hughton) was more of an out and out defender, whereas I liked to go raiding a little bit. But I ended up playing and the rest is history. With it being England and everything it was something very special.”

Japan and Korea provided even more memorable moments at the very end of his Irish career, Staunton retiring from international football after the dramatic shoot-out exit to Spain. But, of course, the 2002 World Cup also enveloped him in unprecedented controversy for Irish sport.

Did he learn anything from the Saipan experience which he thinks might help him as a manager? “You’re learning all the time,” he says. “Things go on at club level that people don’t hear about. You don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s so political, you’d wish you were a TD or something like that. That goes on in football, we don’t kid ourselves. The beauty of being a player is you can forget all about that.”

But, I point out, you didn’t in Saipan, you took a stand!

“Listen, things go on,” he says. “It’s in the past. I’ve never spoken about it and I will never speak about it. It’s gone, it’s history, it’ll go to my grave with me. I know what went on. Everybody had their opinion and wrote whatever they wanted to write - whether it was right or not. And I’ve just let people get on with it. It’s gone.

“Everyone’s moved on. It’s three and half years - I mean we’ve got to forget about it. What we should remember is all the good that’s come - how professional this organisation’s got. John Delaney has done a fantastic job. We’re on about a new academy, playing in Croke Park. I could never have imagined it. And I’m gonna be at the forefront of all this, please God. I can’t catch my breath.”

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