In a playing career that took in 102 international matches and 500 league games, Steve Staunton never shirked a challenge. Tonight, however, the 37-year-old faces arguably his toughest test yet as his job as Republic of Ireland manager, and the country's UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying hopes, hang by a thread.
Saturday's 5-2 defeat in Cyprus may not, statistically, have been the biggest loss in Ireland's 80 years of national-team football - that was a 7-0 friendly thrashing by Brazil in 1982 - but the debacle in Nicosia is being regarded as the worst result Ireland have ever produced. Winger Damien Duff labelled the performance a "joke" and the outcome "devastating". Captain Robbie Keane described it as "the worst night of my football career".
Former internationals working in the media also had their say, with damning comments from the likes of Liam Brady ("a total embarrassment, with no cohesion, no character and no excuses"), Mark Lawrenson ("we won't qualify for UEFA EURO 2008™ and won't even go close") and Eamon Dunphy ("Saturday was the worst night ever for Irish football"). To hammer the point home, the Ireland squad woke up in their Dublin hotel on Monday morning, after a six-hour delay to their flight from Cyprus, to read front-page headlines like "Stan Ain't The Man" (Irish Daily Mirror) and "Stan, You Muppet" (The Irish Sun).
Staunton was appointed head coach in January and immediately announced that he had a four-year plan, aiming to build a side with young players capable of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. However, after qualifying defeats by Germany (1-0) and Cyprus, the country's most capped player - who represented the Republic from 1988-2001 - could find himself with the shortest reign of any Ireland manager.
As the Irish are moving from their home ground, the 34,000-capacity Lansdowne Road, to the 70,000-capacity Croke Park for next year's Group D qualifiers against Wales, Slovakia, Germany and Cyprus, there is massive pressure on the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) to sell enough tickets to meet the cost of renting the stadium - estimated at €1.5m per game. The FAI know it will be hard to shift tickets if the team are already out of contention.
Staunton did have problems before the Cyprus match, with his assistant Sir Bobby Robson unavailable for health reasons, and injuries to key players Shay Given, Stephen Carr, Ian Harte, Steven Reid, Graham Kavanagh and Kevin Doyle. Doyle is expected to return against Karel Brückner's Czech Republic while Lee Carsley, Stephen Kelly, Alan Quinn and Andy Reid have been added to a squad further weakened by Richard Dunne's suspension and Stephen Ireland's withdrawal.
'A tough man'
Another of Staunton's assistants, Kevin MacDonald, insisted the manager would not hide from the challenge. "You know Steve Staunton as well as I do," he said. "He's a tough man and he won't walk away because he's proud of having played for his country for so long and he's even more proud of being manager."
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