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Staunton left with survival scrap

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Chris Bevan | 13:20 UK time, Sunday, 8 November 2009

FA Cup first round, Underhill

If ever a man was in need of some of the fabled magic of the FA Cup to rub off on him and his team, it was Darlington boss Steve Staunton at Underhill on Saturday.

Sadly for Staunton, who is just a month into his rescue mission to try to keep the Quakers in the Football League, the only thing that could be conjured up on a cold autumn afternoon in north London was a disappearing act by his defence. Barnet's 3-1 win means there will be no Cup run to lift spirits at the struggling League Two club - only a long, hard winter awaits.

I watched the former Republic of Ireland boss cut a frustrated figure on the touchline during the game, his fourth defeat in five games in charge, and heard him display similar emotions afterwards. You sense that, if he was ever in doubt about the size of the task in front of him, he is fully aware of it now.

You might wonder what Staunton is doing at Darlington in the first place. If the former Liverpool and Aston Villa left-back, who won a record 102 caps for his country, was a surprise choice as a rookie international boss when he took the reins of the Republic in January 2006, then it was an even bigger shock to see him unveiled as Darlington's manager on 5 October.

The troubled north-east club had sacked Colin Todd after a turbulent summer and disastrous start to the season which had left them winless and rock-bottom of the table - looking every bit a sinking ship.

stauntond595.jpgStaunton has won one of his five games as Darlington manager

But I'm told the 40-year-old, who had a brief spell as assistant manager at Leeds after he was sacked as Republic of Ireland boss in October 2007, was desperate to get back into football and had failed with applications to at least four other clubs, including Rotherham earlier this season, before landing the Quakers post.

It's easy to understand why he is so eager to prove himself. Rather than looking to rebuild his reputation in the manner of say, ex-England boss Steve McClaren at Twente Enschede, Staunton's lack of experience means he needs to show he can manage in club football at all - at any level. The danger is that, by accepting the challenge at Darlington, he could damage his future prospects rather than enhance them.

It is clear that Staunton faces a twin challenge - on and off the pitch. On it, his commendable commitment to playing neat passing football despite his side's predicament is undermined by defensive naivety by his players. Off it, his attempts to add much-needed older heads to the squad are hampered by the transfer window and limited funds.

Once the Quakers' young side fell behind in the 18th minute at Barnet's tiny north London home, after a poor clearance let veteran Bees frontman Paul Furlong play in John O'Flynn, some of their heads visibly dropped. Perhaps that is not so surprising - Darlington have gone behind in every one of their 19 matches so far this season, and have only recovered to win one of them. They also lost 3-0 on their last visit to Underhill, a fortnight ago.

But to the credit of Staunton and his experienced assistant, former Everton and Arsenal midfielder Kevin Richardson, they cajoled their players from the touch-line - and not always gently either - to the point where they were pressing for an equaliser by half-time. You could understand Staunton's exasperation, then, to see his side press the self-destruct button again three minutes after the restart when Moses Barnett's mistake resulted in Furlong teeing up Micah Hyde. Such is life at this level of the game - hard work often brings no reward.

O'Flynn's second goal of the game subsequently made sure of Barnet's victory, although 21-year-old Mor Diop's first goal for the club did give the Quakers faint hope of a comeback before the end. You could hardly call Staunton's side unlucky to have lost but it was individual errors that cost his side, not his team selection or tactics - two areas which saw him heavily criticised during his time as Republic boss. The Quakers were fluid in terms of their formation and, occasionally, with their football. Unfortunately they were almost always wasteful after setting up some promising situations.

It is not as if Staunton has been unable to identify his side's defensive limitations either. He and Richardson have been assessing the squad since before they got the job but the problem is being able to afford to put things right. Chairman Raj Singh has not said whether or not there will be transfer funds in January but the impression so far is that finances will continue to be tight.

"We've got players ready to come in," a slightly spiky Staunton told me afterwards. "We know what we have to change - but our hands are tied. We've got a lot of bodies in the squad so we need to get some people out first. We haven't got an abundance of money so we need to do that before trying to get fresh faces in.

"Naturally I'd like some more experience - you're looking to get that fine balance but the youngsters I've taken in are from Premier League clubs and, as long as they are better than what we've got, we will continue to take them in, young or old.

Staunton has already cast his net far and wide in his attempts to improve his options at the Northern Echo Arena, signing eight players so far. But, of those, only 34-year-old former Leeds and Middlesbrough frontman Noel Whelan has any real knowledge of the senior English professional game, and it seems to be asking a lot for him, let alone the others, to have enough of an impact to stave off relegation.

stauntona595.jpgStaunton's only previous management experience is with the Republic of Ireland

Diop, a Senegalese striker, had been without a club since leaving Spanish part-timers Ibiza in the summer, former Wycombe goalkeeper Ashlee Jones, 22, was another free agent, while ex-Boro midfielder Nathan Mulligan, 23, arrived from Northern League side Norton and Stockton Ancients after resuming his career following a cancer scare.

The other four signings are all on loan, with three teenagers plucked on loan from Premier League reserve sides - Wolves midfielder David Davis, Aston Villa striker James Collins and Everton defender Moses Barnett - along with Simon Thomas, 25, a rangy forward who is on Crystal Palace's books but who has spent most of his career playing in the Ryman League.

Compare that quartet, who all started the game a Barnet, to the spine of the Bees side; Staunton's former Republic of Ireland team-mate Gary Breen, 35, midfielder Micah Hyde, 34, and Furlong, 41 - who have each played more than 600 senior games, with a good percentage coming in the top flight - and you can see why the Quakers were as much out-thought as they were out-fought at Underhill. Aside from their captain, the former Bristol Rovers and Scunthorpe defender Stephen Foster, Staunton seemed to be lacking leaders on the pitch on Saturday - something a team in Darlington's situation desperately needs.

"I can't mark people for them," bemoaned Staunton afterwards. "They can do it from Monday to Friday in training but they cannot do it on a Saturday, which tells me something. We've got to pick up points, and win games. If you're not winning games, you've got to try and draw them. We're doing neither at the moment."

Given the circumstances then, you might think that morale at Darlington is as low as their league position. Not so. I spoke to a number of their players at Underhill after the game and was struck not just by their optimism, but by their belief in Staunton and that he can still keep their club in the Football League.

Collins, who has scored 50 goals in the last two seasons for Villa's academy and reserve sides, hopes to repay the Quakers boss for giving him a chance at first-team level, telling me: "Steve has tried a lot of things to improve us as a team but things are not coming off for him. He wants things done properly too - we try to pass the ball around instead of lump it.

"He's got a lot of experience from being a player himself and he has given me a lot of confidence right away. I get on with him and I like him. He and Ricco (Richardson) work hard to try to keep morale up but obviously when you are losing games every week there is not much you can say. We just need a bit of luck, until we get that we will just keep going."

Any recovery will have to happen soon, of course. The Quakers have got five points from their 15 league games so far while, in the last five seasons in League Two, a tally of between 38 and 50 points has been required to be sure of staying up. Even taking the lower of those two targets, Darlington need to win 11 of their 31 remaining games - but they are likely to need require closer to 15 victories - a tall order, which ever way you look at it.

Despite having nothing more than a relegation struggle to look forward to, Richardson - who won the League title with Everton and Arsenal as a player - insists that he and Staunton do not regret their decision to take charge and insists they can still turn things around despite the odds being against them.

"We could have said no to the job, but we said yes," Richardson explained to me ahead of his long coach journey back up north. "We knew what we were taking on and nothing has changed since then. With both of our backgrounds, we wanted to come in and help the club and help the players.

"We have had a lot to do since we got here - getting to know the lads, the team's strengths and weaknesses and trying to put those right. We have seen an improvement but we are still seeing them think 'here we go again' when we go. They have got to be stronger mentally.

"Does our own spirit drop sometimes? No, not at all. We might get a bit frustrated because we are used to success - that's what we know. If we can get that winning mindset across to the players, and hopefully manage it sooner rather than later, then we will see a big difference - and we are not giving up on anything yet."

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  • Comment number 1.

    As a Darlo fan our season is just getting worse and worse
    While we have seen at times some very good attacking play from our side we just dont look like we will ever score.
    We waste chances regularly and we gift teams at least a goal a game by individual mistakes.

    Im sure our season cant stay this bad and we are capable of winning a lot of the games we have lost, we are unlucky to be at the foot of the table but it is good to hear the morale is still relatively high at the club

    Lets hope for a positive result too restart our season next week

  • Comment number 2.

    John O'Flynn, not David.

    Apparently all our .goals were individual errors? What nonsense, all three were very well crafted and well taken. I also think you very much could criticise the original selection given how impressive the substitutes were when they came on.

    The overall point about Darlo is a very good one, though. We learnt last season how know-how and experience are critical factors at this level and it's helping us again this season. Darlo look a poor side, though, with limited competitiveness in midfield and cutting edge up front.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think that Saturday's game was relatively easy for Barnet but when the two Darlington substitutes Gray and Diop came on they looked a completely different prospect and Jake Cole in the Bees goal made 3 or 4 superb saves.

    However, in the game at Underhill 2 weeks ago Darlington could have been 2 or 3 goals up at half time such was their dominance. Barnet made substitutions in that game and we went on to win 3-0.

    What I am trying to say is that Darlington are not as bad as their position suggests. Aside from the 2 substitutes I thought that Collins looks an excellent player. I think that they will get out of it, they just need to be a lot more clinical and maybe get in at least 1 more experienced player to help lead the team.

    It was also very evident to see how frustrated Staunton was, especially in the first half. He is desperate to turn it around and his heart is clearly in it. I genuinely hope they pull away from trouble and on the evidence I have seen, it is certainly possible.


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