This Is a Low
As it turned out, it was a good thing that Stephen Staunton was forcibly billeted in the main stand of the Neo GSP Stadium in Nicosia as Saturday's calamitous Euro 2008 qualifier unfolded. By virtue of being hidden from view, at least the manager was spared the visual humiliation of having his image associated with the worst Irish performance in an international football match in living memory.
That is probably fair, because the 5-2 defeat was such a staggering mess that no one man could possibly have created it on his own.
Firstly, brass tacks. How did it happen?
A robust Cypriot team lined up against an Irish midfield containing three players of wispy build. Crucially, in the centre, Stephen Ireland and Kevin Kilbane never established the sort of firm grasp of the pattern of the game that any team needs to dominate an opponent, even one as lowly as Cyprus. Ireland, the player, lacks any sort of physicality and was easily bustled off the ball. Kilbane, whatever he may be, is not a central midfielder and also was unable to provide the solidity to give Ireland the iniative. Thus the midfield was utterly lost.
Meanwhile, the Irish defence was riddled by indecision, confusion and error. The goalkeeper and his defenders were continually incommunicado, all were infused from the start with hesitancy and, from Andy O'Brien, we witnessed possibly the worst performance from a defender since the Germans invaded France in 1940. With no shield from midfield, this flimsy defence was exposed time and again, with obvious consequences.
Who was responsible. While we were somewhat sceptical in these parts over the volume of the clamour for Lee Carsley - and to suggest that the Everton man's inclusion would have prevented the debacle from unfolding altogether is surely overestimating his abilities, given the scale of the disaster - there is no doubt that Ireland did not possess any player capable of operating as a defensive midfielder, a component no team can function without.
To venture for a moment inside the mind of Stephen Staunton. Carsley's omission was based on the following: the player had requested that he play if called up, thereby presumably pricking Staunton's sense of managerial authority; Staunton, looking to build a team for the future, felt that he needed to rely on the younger players already in his squad, rather than drafting in a 32-year old veteran.
To act for a moment as Staunton's absent sense of better judgement. Quite clearly had Carsley been called up for this fixture and Wednesday's now-chilling encounter with the Czechs he would certainly have played, in the aforementioned absence of any other player in his crucial position, thus satisfying the player's wish. He could then have gone back to his club upon the return of Stephen Reid or Graham Kavanagh, if Staunton felt that those players were ahead of him.
On the matter of the future and Staunton's part in it, put simply, any more results like Saturday's and Staunton will be witnessing the development of this team from much further away than the main stand. Rarely do managers keep their jobs on the basis of results that have yet to happen.
The Carsley issue aside, the magnitude of the collapse is the most troubling matter. The absence of any plan, structure, on-field leadership, composure, the textbook case of a non-functioning football team that Ireland represented on Saturday was a shocking indictment of everyone involved. The inability of the management to impart organisation. The failure of the players, almost wholesale, to perform the basic tasks of their profession. Fundamental stuff.
The injuries which left Ireland so depleted were indeed a serious burden to an already shallow squad. But, like any of the single factors we have already mentioned, they do not sufficiently explain the horror of the performance.
Looming over all of it is the FAI. Upon Brian Kerr's removal at the end of the last qualifying campaign, the association's attempts to lure a "world-class" name to take the managers job were scuppered on the refusal of any serious contender to work with such unpromising raw materials. The appointment of Staunton, with Bobby Robson as back-up, was a last resort dressed up in the clothes of a visionary gamble.
With Robson's health problems meaning his involvement with the team didn't extend beyond the first pair of friendlies, Staunton has been left to navigate the early troubled waters of his managerial career alone. The rumoured approach to Kenny Dalglish to take up Robson's mantle is evidence that Staunton hasn't taken to those waters like the proverbial duck.
While the early months, culminating in Saturday's defeat, have been unpromising - the impression of Staunton through his words and deeds being one of a sense of dire confusion and illogicality that evidently imparted itself totally onto his players in Nicosia - one must allow the manager to be judged when the terms of his appointment are in place. The current situation, for all Staunton's mistakes, is hanging the rookie manager out to dry.
If the FAI do replace Robson with another senior figure, Staunton must then be allowed to work within this curious arrangement as his initial appointment intended. While very few, at this stage, will have faith in a resulting upturn in fortunes, the manager is owed at least that.
And anyway, it really can't get any worse, can it?