Cap fits for captain Staunton

 

The Nuremore Hotel in Monaghan sometime in the late 1980s. It's Friday night and it's dark and it's late and Jack Charlton has yet to go soft in his dotage. Two young footballers nip out a window and make their way through the shadows up to the main Carrickmacross Road. They get picked up by a car full of young ones on their night out. Clever!Tom Humphries talks to Ireland's record-breaking captain Steve Staunton

The night is long and memorable. Eventually duty, or is it fear, begins to tug at their sleeves and they slip away and back out the road to the team hotel, bellies full of beer, heads full of giggles. Back to the window they left open on their way out.

"What the?" says one "some hoors only gone and locked the window" So Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton stand in the darkness outside The Nuremore well over the limit, well beyond the pale of their manager's indulgence and contemplate their short international careers which are about to end. Quinn, ever one to see the lighter side of things, is inclined towards gallows humour. Staunton is busy in the darkness. Quinn is fatalistic. Staunton is determined.

Finally he finds a window, hisses to Quinn and ushers the big man through, one finger over his lips. Captain Sensible.

Today he becomes Ireland's first 100-cap player. Captaining his country, playing in the World Cup finals, playing against Germany with all the big chips on the table. It is passing the mark in a manner befitting what footballers might call Bertie Big Potatoes, except Staunton is having none of it. If you want the model professional, you won't find him outside the Nuremore all those decades ago, you find him talking down this landmark.

"If we beat Germany we put ourselves in a great position. That's what I'm concentrating on. It would be nice but it's just another cap, if selected." This is big but it's no Queen's jubilee.

They call him Stan. Everyone does and if it seems a little over familiar to do so it seems absurdly formal not to. The popular misconception is that he is so named because of a more than passing resemblance to the sad-eyed Stan Laurel. Instead it's a Liverpool story.

"It was John Benison at Liverpool, he started calling me Stan because apparently there was a Stan Staunton playing at Chester and he couldn't get it out of his head. By the time John started calling me Steve the rest of the lads were calling me Stan and they kept calling me Stan. So it stuck."

It stuck and it travelled. There was a good Irish contingent at Liverpool in those days and Staunton's club career and international career began almost concurrently. He was Stan for ever more.

Liverpool stories. Although he spent more time at Villa in a career bifurcated between the midlands and the Mersey, you sense that Liverpool stories are the ones that he tells, that Liverpool was the club that made him and left the maker's mark on him.

He was 17 when he left Dundalk for Anfield. He signed on down in Cork of all places. Liverpool came over to play a Republic of Ireland XI and the Staunton family were brought down. He was allowed stay at home with the family until the end of pre-season, "which was good of them," he says sincerely, even though it was more than 15 years ago and he repaid every kindness of Liverpool's in spades before they transferred him against his will in 1990.

"I went back to England at the end of August, start of the season and I just remember being overawed. They'd just won the double and I was with legends. Boyhood heroes. It was great. There were a lot of Irish lads in the reserves, Ken de Mange, Brian Mooney, Jim Magilton, they were all there. In the first team Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and Ronnie Whelan. Jim and Ronnie were especially great. Later John Aldridge and Ray Houghton came. Everyone was good to me. The rest of the lads too, fellas like Stevie Nichol and Alan Hansen. They took the mickey all day long but they made you feel at home."

He squeezed his way into Liverpool's team of talents. One Sunday morning Kenny Dalglish called him in his flat and told him not to worry, Liverpool weren't going to sell him but they wanted him to go on loan to Bradford City. He trusted Dalglish and the loan spell went well. He got onto the Liverpool bench at the end of the season and in the autumn of 1988 made his debut in a 1-1 carve-up with Spurs.

Dalglish, Kenny. Mention of him reminds you of whom Staunton reminds you of. The way he holds himself, the reserve he presents in front of the media, his knowledge of the game, his old fashioned professionalism, it all reminds you of Dalglish.

"Me? Like Kenny?" he says when you ask him, "get away! He was excellent, well respected as footballer and as a manager. He was a big influence alright but I was always strong-willed myself. Always knew what I wanted.

"Nah. I've always admired him and he's actually quite a funny man outside of the press but we know what the press are all about. I give the press what they need to know and that's the end of it. I'm not one of these that goes shouting me mouth off or goes to magazines. Some players like that. I just don't. I like to keep my life private. I don't like that."

But there are moments when he comes across all Kenny Dalglish, when he calculates why you might want some information of him and rations it out meanly until he has your measure.

"What age were you when you first played soccer?"

"Six, six."

"For who?"

"Malachy's."

"In Dundalk?"

"Yeah."

So it began on a sunny day in Dundalk. His brother David was a handy player who kicked football for Louth later on. Steve went to see him play for St Malachy's, who as you probably know were the B team for St Dominic's.

The Malachy's boys were all about seven or eight. The St Dominic's lads veterans of nine and 10. Steve was watching David "and somebody smashed the ball out of play and it hit me and knocked the ice cream cone right out of my hand. I wasn't a happy bunny. I remember a teacher giving me a jersey and telling me to go and strut my stuff, to get back at them that way."

And he was away with it. He played Gaelic and soccer, a little more of the former actually, before he was picked up and snatched away to Liverpool. Where did it all go wrong? "No shillings in Gaelic is there?" he laughs. "It's the boyhood dream though isn't it? I'm very fortunate to have been spotted and taken across."

His career seems to have gone on forever. Although he only had his under-age caps and his work for Bradford City with which to stake his claim there was surprise when he didn't make the squad for the 1988 European Championships. His international debut came in October of the same year against Tunisia, playing in defence alongside somebody called Mick McCarthy.

And ever since? He has been the irremovable object. He has played in three different positions in three World Cups and is the only man to have played in every World Cup finals game this country has ever played.

"Good times, bad times, up and down, injuries, loss of form, other players coming through. All things considered I'm glad to be just playing at all," he says.

"At the start of this campaign I wasn't in the squad and I had my doubts. Then I got a lucky break and I've got back in. For me, after playing regularly for so long, well, at the start of this campaign I was thinking of stepping aside. Mick kept me going though. And I'm glad he did."

And he talks about Dundalk and the people who helped him there, even when he used to come for summers as a teenager.

"They've been brilliant. And then Ronnie Moran. Everybody at Liverpool really. It's a family club. You take a lot of stick there but it was to toughen you up. I was a quiet shy lad when I went over, you know." And the conversation gets back to what he likes talking about the best. Football. The business. The job. World Cup talk.

"It's great. We've started the games. After nearly three weeks together all you want is the games. We played well on Saturday, got a decent result. Could have been better, could have been worse. We put in a strong performance. Things were never going to change. Tomorrow was always going to be tough. Germany will expect a tough game as well."

He's the captain talking now but there must have been times in Izumo and Saipan when he looked at the chaos all around him and wondered what he was doing there, what we were all doing there.

"Me?" he says. "Everybody was thinking that from youngest to oldest. Any Irishman. It's a shame what's happened. That's life though. Hopefully we can go on."

And the inevitable last question, knowing the answer before he even purses his lips to answer it.

"No. No regrets. I'm happy with the decisions. No regrets at all. Not necessarily. It really flies. I remember looking at these senior pros and next you're a senior pro and you're wishing you were 15 or 16 again.

"That's football for you. It's over quickly and you're still a young man when you finish. It's a great job."

And years to go before he gets the pension and the silver watch.