Redtops make a muppet show of themselves

Media criticism of Steve Staunton: John O'Sullivan on the grim reality that, however much muck the more lurid tabloids may throw…

Media criticism of Steve Staunton: John O'Sullivan on the grim reality that, however much muck the more lurid tabloids may throw at him, it's not all Staunton's fault: our team are just not that hot any more

Muppet. Clown. Loser. The vocabulary of juvenile rage has exploded across the front pages and the national airwaves this past week, occasioned by the exploits of group of brave Cypriots of varying talent.

If Steve Staunton does go, who would want to replace him? Who would sign up as fair game, should things again not go swimmingly in the defensive midfield, for levels of public vitriol heretofore reserved, at least in Irish media, for old-fashioned villains like murderers, sex beasts or unambiguously crooked politicians? Stoic Stan, focus of most of the abuse, says it doesn't affect him.

He never was a first-rank football poster boy, but he can't have had much preparation for this from his glory days. It's unlikely he was ever part of an 11 that took stick from short-changed punters in the Anfield Kop or the Holte End at Villa.


That, as football professionals at any level know, is part of the game. But he cannot have imagined that the ugly flip side of You'll Never Walk Alone, sinister phone calls to family included, could so quickly reveal itself, just a few defeats into managing the national team the success of which he was for so long an integral part of.

This is more than run-of-the-mill hero to zero. In the pillorying of Stevie "Blunder" Staunton, and in its extraordinary pitch and volume, we have reached new heights of hysteria.

Public reaction to footballing fortunes is, of course, often out of kilter with reality. To the rational mind, the strength of joy feeding on success, or of disappointment-fuelled anger, is inexplicable. We cannot penetrate the mind of the fan, for whom there is more to football than life. We either feel it, or we don't.

This time round, though, everyone is expected to feel it. This story, of national hero turned loser, turned national whipping boy, is for everyone, because everyone should be ashamed of losing to puny Cyprus.

And, with it, we all are invited to lose our reason. Let yourself go. It's time to rage, or at least it was until we made the Czechs pay, a bit. In a chorus of comic book excoriation that straddled all of Ireland's national media, Staunton was made to feel the lash of our wrath, with nothing to shield him but feeble, ride-the-storm manager-speak. It remains to be seen whether the salvaging of a single point on Wednesday can change the script.

They may not all have called him a fool or a clown or a blunderer, but most everyone got to stick a boot in. "Jack it in Stan", concluded one broadsheet analysis, "and don't let the door hit your arse on the way out".

Over on Newstalk, they understand muppets, the term being an essential artillery piece in the argot of the 18 to 26 demographic. The station, newly elevated to national status but anxious to cling to its laddish sports credentials, put together a mocking track that sampled Stan's Louth drawl to construct an audio moron. Elsewhere, the airwaves crackled with contempt, not just in the phone-ins, where venting is the main course anyway, but also in the voices of reporters who sounded as if someone had just taken away their SSIAs.

For sheer smothering of bad news, the spin merchants of Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell could not have conjured up a louder decoy.

It wasn't just the tabloids, but the nadir came when it was decided that mere words, including even "muppet", were not enough to express our rage. In the art department of the Irish Sun, a grown man or woman took an image of a frog puppet's face and photoshopped its features on to Staunton's head, leaving enough in outline for us to recognise the target of derision. The once stalwart boy in green became a fool in green.

Next day, the newspaper went further, with a calculatedly humiliating stunt in which its reporter, aka "Miss Piggy", attempted to accost the manager during training.

The Sun knew what it was doing, because, famously, it had done it before. In its most recent outing in Britain, this sort of shock treatment amounted to calling Sven-Goran a "tosser".

But the most startling gaffer-baiting was the original - the unforgettable depiction of the unfortunate Graham Taylor as a turnip. It was later reported that Taylor contemplated suicide as a result of the vilification which he endured as England manager.

Back then, we liked to think that redtop culture was something alien. A bit like soccer-boys in green playing for English clubs, British institutions like Liverpool and Manchester United, followed vicariously through television - the tabloid for most was regarded from a safe geographical and cultural distance. But Irish readers and Irish journalists have shown in jig time that we can do tabloid with the best of them.

For many, it fits, and of course tabloids aren't all bad. What still feels imported and foreign, however, is the curiously self-righteous outrage at sporting failure, the foam-flecked fury with which the defeat to "minnows" has been met.

We are not England. We have not suffered 40 years of hurt since we won the World Cup. We do not have masses of people turning out week after week, decade after decade, to watch the beautiful game, which is not our national game. No one thinks we have the greatest league in the world, and our clubs do not have devotees from Norway to Japan.

And yet in the last week we have been accorded the right to a national hissy fit of positively Anglo proportions. Go ahead, mate, let it out. You're entitled. As the redtops up the ante, rage inflation ensures everyone else amplifies their message, and the pack bays for blood. Until now, the privilege of archly dismissing a succession of managers as mediocrities, while routinely indulging in name-calling, has been reserved for the chosen few in sports punditry. Now we all want a go.

Somehow, in all of this, the outrage has succeeded in side-stepping the reality of the talent that lies in the feet and in the brains of our footballers. We level at the squad the gravest of accusations in football, that of having being "dishonest" in Cyprus. Perhaps they were. But all along we have been lying to ourselves and, now that we've been found out, there's hell to pay.

We haven't always had this notion of entitlement. It is only in the recent era that "the best fans in the world" have become cynically expectant of conveyor-belt success, as if, somehow, the English Premiership and its grannies owed us a carefree bi-annual romp through to finals in 2008 and 2010, where we would be content eventually to lose with honour to a proper football team, at least some of whose names we could recognise from the telly.

More nuanced analyses of the Cyprus calamity, to be found in the quieter reaches of the sports pages, including tabloid pages, tell us a less convenient story. Regardless of the talents of the manager, at bottom, at least in part because of the globalisation of football, there may lie a truth that we find hard to stomach. We're not especially good any more.

Whatever about the eventual outcome in the slow crucifixion of Stan, that's a tale that's never going to fly with a 120-point headline beside a picture of a man-frog.

* John O'Sullivan lectures in journalism at Dublin City University.