When Liverpool were at their pomp during the 1970s and 80s, there was a strong Irish representation at the club. The great Steve Heighway became immortalised in song with inclusion in ‘The Fields of Anfield Road’, while the 80s saw the likes of Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan and John Aldridge excel at Anfield. Joining that list of names in the latter part of the decade was a young, reliable and versatile defender named Steve Staunton.
As a 17-year-old playing for hometown club Dundalk in the League of Ireland, Kenny Dalglish saw plenty of potential in the youngster and signed him for a paltry fee of £20,000 in 1986. His first two years at the club were primarily spent on loan before being given his Liverpool debut in the early weeks of the 1988/89 campaign. Staunton quickly showed that he wasn’t overawed by playing alongside men who had won multiple league titles and European honours, with a long-term injury to Alan Hansen enabling him to blossom into a first team regular over the course of the season. He was in the Liverpool team on that tragic day at Hillsborough in April 1989 and played the majority of the FA Cup final win over Everton.
He was denied a league medal his performances would have deserved because of Michael Thomas’ stoppage time goal for Arsenal in that notorious 0-2 defeat, but Staunton got his hands on the trophy a year later, becoming part of what remains Liverpool’s most recent league-winning team. Early in the 1989/90 season, he scored his first goal for the club in a League Cup match against Wigan and added two more in the same game – all after coming on as a substitute.
Staunton played for one more season at Anfield before joining Aston Villa, a move that some quarters put down to Liverpool needing to cut back on foreign player quotas for European fixtures now that their post-Heysel continental ban was lifted. He excelled at Villa Park alongside international colleague Paul McGrath and came close to winning the Premier League in its first season, Manchester United ultimately proving too strong for Villa. Two League Cup triumphs in the mid-1990s would follow and he spent the majority of that decade in Birmingham.
With his contract at Villa Park set to expire in 1998, Staunton made a surprise return to Liverpool that summer, signed by joint-managers Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier. This was a very different Liverpool to the all-conquering one he had joined 12 years’ earlier, with the Reds limping to a seventh-place finish in the first season of his second spell at the club. The Irishman had a tumultuous week early in the 1999/2000 season when he was forced to play in the goal for the concluding minutes of a Merseyside derby defeat after Sander Westerveld was sent off and the Reds had no substitutes remaining. A few days later, ironically against Aston Villa, it was Staunton’s turn to receive a red card, shown to him for a second bookable offence after he was deemed to have encroached upon a Villa free kick prematurely. It ranks as one of the more baffling red cards in Premier League history.
His time at Liverpool would enter a third decade, although he had become a bit-part player at the club by the 2000/01 season, during which he did a second retracing of his steps and rejoined Aston Villa (he also had a brief loan spell at Crystal Palace beforehand). Now in the twilight of his career, he played for two more years at Villa Park before seeing out his playing days with Coventry and Walsall, his final game as a player coming on New Years’ Eve 2005, almost 20 years after leaving humble Dundalk for world-famous Liverpool.
Towards the end of his time at Walsall, Staunton also served at the club’s assistant manager as the right-hand man for Paul Merson. This was the only coaching experience he had to his name when, in early 2006, the major bombshell dropped that he was to take the Republic of Ireland manager’s job. In his introductory press conference, amid questions that he wouldn’t have the experience to properly stamp his authority on players who had been team-mates of his, he defiantly stated “I’m the boss. I’m the gaffer. At the end of the day, what I say goes; the buck stops with me.”
The FAI appeared to undermine him somewhat by hiring the late Bobby Robson, a man who had been there and done it all in the world of football, as his assistant. Only a few months into the job, Staunton was facing calls for his resignation after Ireland crashed to a 5-2 defeat in Cyprus in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. His stock sank even lower in February 2007 when Ireland needed a stoppage time winner to see off San Marino, after which he declared without a hint of irony “To be fair to San Marino, there are no easy games in international football.”
Near the end of that hugely disappointing qualifying campaign, an uninspiring 1-1 home draw with Cyprus, in which Liverpool’s Steve Finnan scored a last-gasp equaliser, proved to be Staunton’s last match in charge. He soon joined Leeds as assistant manager to Gary McAllister before taking charge at Darlington in 2009. His time at the north-eastern club was short and not so glorious, with dismal results and attendances as the Quakers ultimately dropped out of the Football League, their relegation confirmed shortly after Staunton’s dismissal in March 2010. He later remained in the north-east, working as a scout for Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
Younger football fans in Ireland would remember Staunton primarily as the man who oversaw one of the bleakest periods in the national team’s history, but those in the 30+ age bracket will recall his days as a solid, dependable centre-back or left-back. He also has the distinction of scoring not one but two goals directly from corner kicks for Ireland and he was the first player to reach a century of caps for his country, even if three players have since surpassed his total of 102 international appearances. Also, he is the only man to have played in all of Ireland’s 13 matches across three World Cups. Not bad going for someone who joined Liverpool for £20,000 in the mid-1980s.