Fifteen years ago today, the FAI issued a press release confirming that the 36-year-old assistant manager of Walsall had signed a four-year contract to become the new Ireland manager.
The headline would go down infamy:
FAI confirms Stephen Staunton has been appointed new Ireland manager
Sir Bobby Robson to take up new International Football Consultant post
The appointment, and the rumours that preceded, spawned a week shock and outrage amongst Irish fans. It put the Irish media in a difficult position as well. Staunton was a massively-regarded, old school character who also patently not a media performer. Many sensed the disaster that was coming.
From Bescot Stadium to the Mansion House
Staunton was a player-coach under Paul Merson in the third flight of English football when Delaney came knocking.
After Brian Kerr was deposed the previous autumn, new fulltime FAI CEO John Delaney had promised supporters that an elite manager would take his place. Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, Terry Venerables and Phillippe Troussier were mooted as possible successors to Kerr. Apparently Roy Keane, Alex Ferguson and George Burley were offered the role. John Aldridge, Frank Stapleton and David O'Leary were more realistic candidates.
After three months of searching, Delaney found himself at Birmingham Airport in January 2006, placing a wild bet on the most-capped Ireland international, while entrusting Robson with a nebulous advisory role.
Many observers believed Delaney was staking his entire reputation on Staunton's success.
This was the spin: morale was low in Irish camp after the Kerr years. The passion for the green jersey was ebbing. The scars of Saipan were still raw, but Stan could restore the spirit of the Ireland team.
It was an opportunity Staunton was not remotely prepared for, and one he couldn't refuse.
That week bird flu reached Turkey, stoking fears of a global pandemic. Alan Kelly was appointed Ireland's goalkeeping coach, along with Staunton. Niall Quinn was revealed to have played an instrumental role in bringing Robson on board. Ireland fans have been watching an elaborate farce unfold ever since, but at least the characters are mostly the same.
In that introductory press release, Staunton struck an optimistic note.
'I’m delighted and proud to be appointed Irish international team manager. I know that the calibre of the team I have will bring a huge range of experience and talent to the challenges that lie ahead, I can’t wait to get started. I hope that the drive, passion and commitment that we have can reflect the Irish fans’ real love for the game and have an impact not just on the squad but on the nation"
Delaney was resolute that managerial experience was not essential for success as Ireland manager. 'Experience is not vital because managing an international team is different to managing in the Premiership where you can buy and sell players,' he said.
While the appointment was confirmed on Friday the 13th, the prospect of a Staunton/Robson ticket had leaked in the media earlier in the week. The appointment was essentially confirmed by Des Cahill on Pat Kenny's Today programme on RTÉ Radio 1 the previous Tuesday. A number of texters were apoplectic at the news.
'Do the FAI take us for morons?' one wrote.
'By setting a very low expectation because of the calibre of the management team the FAI are onto a winner. If they don't succeed, it's expected,' another said.
'To the best of my knowledge, no club in any of the top four leagues in England are looking for Steve Staunton. This is crazy,' texted a third listener.
In a vox pop with the Irish Times, Darragh Murphy echoed fan skepticism, describing the move as 'a travesty for Irish football. Throwing these two together smacks of desperation. Staunton should be left to cut his teeth with Walsall or other such clubs for another 10 years and only then be considered for the top job.'
As ever, the fans knew.
The immediate reaction from the footballing world was telling. Stan's peers were immediately cautious. Writing in the Irish Times, Mark Lawrenson put it best:
Steve Staunton and Bobby Robson? Well, it has to be the biggest gamble the Football Association of Ireland has ever taken, in its history. What is the thinking behind it? I have no idea. I've tried to look at it rationally, and have come up with zilch. I've tried to look at it in a slightly off-the-wall way, and I've come up with zilch. I really, really don't understand it.
In the Times, Tony Cascarino was also dubious, but he called on Delaney to give Staunton two full campaigns to fully learn the job.
'It can be so hard to recover from setbacks at the start of your managerial career. It is important that the FA of Ireland gives him two qualifying campaigns - European Championships, then World Cup - regardless of how results go in the next two years.'
Jack Charlton, in his own distinctive way, was cautiously optimistic
'I don't know what qualifications he has got for the job, apart from being a good player but I think he would be OK,' he said.
'What is the worst that can happen?'
While there was no shortage of derision, there were some notable optimists.
Writing in the Sunday Independent, Simon Kuper found hope in similar decisions by the giants of world football. 'If the experience of Holland and Germany is a guide, Ireland will thrive with a young former player as their novice manager,' he wrote, and reminded readers that van Basten, Rijkaard and Beckenbauer had all succeeded with scant experience.
In the Irish Times, Keith Duggan wondered if the rigid thinking of English football's pundit class was preventing them from seeing a potential masterstroke.
But surely it is an interesting prospect also? And what is the worst that can happen? That we don't qualify for the next European championships or World Cup? Well, that has been the Irish experience in all bar three tournaments in the history of organised international soccer.
It is much too radical for most pundits, fearful of ever venturing too far from the status quo, to get their heads around. So they do the easy thing and lament Stan's lack of experience and pay lip service to Bobby's excellent record down the years. They would prefer the gaffer to have served his time, have worked the leagues for a few years and talked the talk.
In the Examiner, Liam Mackey struck the perfect note of doomed optimism.
'It may be that that the going will get worse before its get better, but whatever your view on the decision, Stan deserves all the support he can get.'
The decision would, of course, prove calamitous. Jerome O'Reilly of the Sunday Independent deserves a special Bullshit Detector Award for his piece published the day before Staunton's unveiling, seeing right through the smoke:
And as payoffs go, the €25,000 or so paid to the homely Midlands club known as the Saddlers says a lot about Steve Staunton's managerial pedigree. He has none.
If this experiment fails, the first head on the chopping block should be that of Delaney. How did it all go so wrong? How did John Delaney's dream of attracting a manager with top club or international experience descend into such a fiasco?
What ordinary soccer fans who have watched this latest FAI cock-up with amusement will want to know is what exactly Sir Bobby Robson role as 'International Football Consultant'?
Many journalists made a clear link between Staunton and Delaney. In an article headlined 'Delaney risks his future on Stan's reign as Ireland boss', Gerry McDermott of the Irish Independent opined that Delaney was staking his reputation on the appointment. He wrote:
From now on, Delaney's fate will be entwined with Staunton's and ultimately, it won't be a redeveloped Lansdowne Road, record turnover or a state of the art home at Abbotstown that will define his legacy to Irish football.
Unfortunately for Irish football, this was not to be the case. By October of the next year, Staunton would be sacked. Delaney's ruinous reign would last until 2019.