A relief to be fully fit again


APART from Aston Villa's English League Cup win over Leeds United in March, Steve Staunton didn't enjoy much success in the year just ending.

Yet he believes that in some respects 1996, or rather the second half of it, was one of his most satisfying times in football.

"Only those who have been through the mill with injuries will appreciate just what a relief it was for me to get back in the game and reach the same level of fitness as those around me," he said.

"In the summer of last year I missed pre-season training and never really recovered. I just seemed to get one injury after another and was chasing the game for the rest of the season.

"This summer I was able to do all the work in pre-season and I think it's paid off in my best start to a season in years. Even when I got a niggle last, I was able to come back with a goal against Coventry City and that only happens when luck is running with you."

Staunton, like many of the senior players in the Ireland squad, took only a limited part in the pre-World Cup programme. But even from afar, he was impressed by what he heard of Alan McLoughlin.

"Alan was one of those players who turned up every time in the old days but, apart from the occasional friendly game, never got a chance of showing just how good he was.

"Then Mick McCarthy decided to give him a bit of extra responsibility and the result was incredible. People kept telling me that Alan was a different player after Mick took over but it wasn't until I came and played with him that I realised just how good he was.

"Overall I like the shape of the new Ireland team. Lads like Gary Breen, Keith O'Neill and Ian Harte are settling in well and while I haven't yet seen David Connolly, I'm told that he too has every chance of making up into a good international player."

Staunton is enthusiastic in his praise of European champions Germany. "People say that this isn't a great German squad but given the number of injury problems they encountered on the way to the final, I reckon it is probably as good as any that the country has produced.

"Spain, I thought, were the unlucky team of the championship and the most disappointing undoubtedly were Holland who looked so good when they played us at Anfield."

And his heartbreak story of football in 1996? "I think my clubmate, Gareth Southgate, qualifies for that after what happened in the penalty shoot-out in the German game at Wembley.