By Joe Behan
Steve Staunton’s superb long ball to Gary Kelly out on the right flank caught Saudi Arabia’s defense unbalanced in the seventh minute in Tuesday’s World Cups match. Kelly in turn lobbed the ball over into the box, where Robbie Keane called to let it travel. The Staunton distribution gave Keane time to volley the ball home and give Ireland the crucial early goal, and, as it turned out, the only goal they would need both to win the game and to advance to the Round of 16.
Staunton’s vision and world-class left peg had set Ireland on their way in this 3-0 victory.
In the second half, the Drogheda-born defender and newly anointed team captain was to send in a free from the left side for Gary Breen to make it 2-nil and settle Irish nerves after an uneven first half. The calm, cool and collected Staunton showed abundance of experience, but indeed it was his educated left foot that was to carry Ireland through into the final stages of the FIFA 2002 World Cup.
The game had come down to who was going to produce the magic touch and Breen came up trumps from Staunton’s free in the 61st minute. Mick McCarthy had hauled off Ian Harte at halftime and thus gave the free kick responsibility to his 33-year-old-veteran defender, Mr. Staunton.
Just after the hour mark, the free was to be the turning point of the game and for the Irish. The ex-Dundalk player placed his free in a space right in front of two Saudi defenders and in popped Breen to finish. Staunton’s World Cup experience had come of age as his team, two-nil up, was on their way to meet winners of group B. The quiet man who now ends his time at Aston Villa is the only Irish player to have been featured in three World Cup Finals. It’s no wonder McCarthy gave him the captain’s armband after sending Roy Keane home three weeks ago.
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Staunton now has more than 100 caps for Ireland and holds the record of being the most capped player. He made his debut against Tunisia in 1988 after he signed for Liverpool, where he also made his debut against Spurs. After making the left full position his own, a seemingly lack of form saw him transferred to Aston Villa in the early 1990s.
After seven years with Villa he was back with Liverpool on a free transfer. Then, after adding balance to the shaky Liverpool defense at the time, he was let go on a free transfer. When he joined First Division Crystal Palace on loan in 2000, it looked like Staunton was on his way out of the game. But his self-belief and determination kept him in the market and once again Liverpool recalled him to help the left side. That sweet left peg of his was keeping his career alive and kicking.
Liverpool’s Gerard Houllier had used Staunton and now it was Aston Villa who recalled the unsettled defender on a free transfer in December 2000. The then Villa manager, John Gregory, gave us insight as to just how important Steve Staunton is when it comes to being a team player when he said: “Staunton has massive experience, can cover a range of positions and his presence in the dressing room is always good. He knows he has the task of trying to force himself into a very strong defensive unit, but he is prepared for that challenge.”
Well, Mr. Gregory, you can add another WC sweet sixteen to a defender who you have showed a lot of faith in. Gregory began to move Staunton into the middle of the Villa defense and his performances did not go unnoticed by McCarthy. A year ago when Breen pulled out of the WC qualifier against Portugal, Staunton got the call just when it seemed his international career was also over. He has never looked back since, and is now holding his place as he becomes Ireland’s unsung hero of World Cups. Indeed, at times against Germany and Cameroon Staunton and Breen have looked a bit shaky, but they have looked that way in probably most of their games. Perhaps McCarthy has had no choice but to play Staunton in the back. The one thing that has been established in the game against Saudi is that Staunton, not Harte, should hit Ireland’s free kicks, at least when deep and wide. There was a lot of room in the back line for Ireland to strike the ball with little or no pressure from the Saudis. The big question now is, can Staunton’s left peg produce the magic and turn yet another game around for Ireland? If given the room, he is more than capable. It’s no longer a question of, will Staunton continue his comeback or is he quick enough? It’s a matter of how can the Irish benefit from Staunton’s diehard attitude and an in-form world-class left peg.