For more of Stephen’s insights, favourite football moments and more, read below:
Q. What are your short-term and your long-term goals for Ireland?
A. I think our short-term goals are, without doubt, the upcoming home and away games in the UEFA Nations League. We have six games coming up, which can get your points for a World Cup playoff—which is huge.
Also, the Euros game in Slovakia is very important for us. We’ve got two tough games - against Slovakia and if we can get through that in the final of the play-off - well that’s our ambition. To get to the Euros we have to win two away games. Our ambition is to qualify for the European Championships next year in Dublin, in 2021, and to qualify for the World Cup in 2022. There’s no point in being involved if you don’t have that kind of ambition.
I think you have to have those kinds of aspirations. It won’t be easy; we’ve got to do something we haven’t done in a while—winning two away games against top class opposition—but I believe that we’re well capable of doing that.
Q. You started off as a manager in the SSE Airtricity League at Longford Town when you were just 26. So, it must be very close to your heart?
A. Yes, it is, because I think when you consider the game throughout the world, it’s the biggest game on a worldwide stage, and the league in Ireland is the highest standard you can get in our country. And I think all the players, and all the younger players, want to be the best they can be. We’ve seen a high number of players come through the clubs here and go on and play for Ireland at the highest level. Clubs right throughout the country from Derry to Cork have had senior international players—so it’s (SSE Airtricity League) a breeding ground now for our young players.
Q. Moving away from the Ireland job for a minute—we’ve all developed new interests during ‘lockdown’. What are your interests outside of football?
A. Football consumes so much of my life! But I love spending time with my family. I have a very keen interest in other sports, and a really keen interest in music, in reading. I love empty beaches - walking or running on them, to just give the mind some peace ahead of key decision-making at various times throughout the job.
Q. What is your favourite sport outside of football?
A. I tune into a lot of sports—team sports particularly. Gaelic football and hurling, rugby, and even cricket! When I was managing Dundalk for example, and I’d be driving back to Donegal in the middle of the night, I remember The Ashes tour in Australia was live on the radio at all hours in the morning and I’d spend two and a half hours listening to the cricket. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I must admit! But certainly, I love a lot of team sports.
Q. And to go back to the beautiful game; who’s the greatest player of all time in your opinion?
A. Well, that’s always a question that stimulates debate! And how do you compare players from different ages? You’ve got Pelé of course, who’s renowned as the greatest of his period… Cruyff and Beckenbauer. And of course, Maradona, who, when I was growing up was the best player in the world.
And then, of course, Platini and Zidane. In recent times, you’ve got Messi and Ronaldo. I think Maradona made teams that weren’t great, great—he elevated their status. Lionel Messi, playing in a consistently great team, has just taken our breath away every single year for nearly 15 years, and he’s been absolutely outstanding. It’s difficult to look beyond him. He’s just sheer magic on a consistent basis.
Q. And what’s the greatest team in the history of world football, in your opinion?
A. The Brazil 1970 team, before I was born! The Dutch team in my early years… I grew up watching France as the 1984 European Championship winning team, and I loved watching them. Their flexibility in midfield, the quartet…They had great movement and I enjoyed watching them.
Then international-wise, AC Milan were very, very prominent in the 80s, but the Barcelona team in recent years under Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and then Luis Enrique were really, really outstanding in Europe. So, they’d be hard to beat from a club point of view, but everyone from different generations will have a different viewpoint and that’s the beauty of this great game.
Q. Is there one Irish player from another era that you’d love to have available to you now?
A. I think in Ireland we’re synonymous with so many great, great defenders—Ireland has always produced legendary defenders. So, I’m going to focus on the creative players really, Johnny Giles in midfield and Liam Brady, of course, he was such a creative player—a joy to watch. Roy Keane; just such a consistent body of work as a midfield player, and such a driving force over that period, it was amazing.
Also, of course, Robbie Keane, I don’t think his number of caps and number of goals will ever be equaled. He was such a prolific goal-scorer and a great player also. Damian Duff in that period was a terrific left-winger—someone who really brought everyone to the edge of their seats. So, all of those players have enhanced the Irish football team in a major way and inspired generations to support.
Q. We have the potential now for an incredible year of international football ahead of us, UEFA Nations League games, European Championship playoffs, World Cup qualifiers, and friendlies. What a prospect that is!
A. Yeah, there’s never been a year like it! To have six Nations League games home and away, to have the opportunity to get to the Euros, the playoffs against Slovakia in Slovakia, which is a tough game but one that we want to make sure that we’re absolutely ready for, and then the World Cup qualifiers in March—that’s three competitions in that six-month period. So, it’s an amazing time, again it’s almost surreal because the matches may be played behind closed doors. When I became manager of Ireland, I didn’t envisage walking into an empty Aviva Stadium! We want to see passionate support and passionate nights, but that’s where we are in the short-term, but I’m sure it will return…supporters will return in due course.
So, it is an amazing year and the players are looking forward to it. They know that there are great opportunities with the European Championships and the World Cup in the next two years, and great, great possibilities. And we must do our utmost to try and achieve extraordinary things in the next two years.
Q. Aviva Stadium has just celebrated its 10th birthday. It’s been a very special stadium for you, hasn’t it?
A. Yes, indeed it has. I’ve been involved in eight FAI Cup finals as manager, five of them in Aviva Stadium. And of course, the big night with Dundalk in the Champions League play-off against Legia Warsaw—33,000 in Aviva Stadium. Of five FAI Cup finals, four of them went to extra time—I think Mark Farren scored an unbelievable goal there. Paddy McCourt played him through to win with Derry, in what was voted the best Cup final ever. That was amazing to come back to win 4-3—Richie Towell scored a goal in extra time to win the Cup for Dundalk, Patrick McEleney got the winner for Dundalk, great goal as well, to win the Cup. I’ve lost the Cup final on penalties; I’ve lost in the 120th minute, so these are the highs and lows. [I’ve had] amazing, amazing experiences in Aviva Stadium and I hope to have many more in the future.
The way I view it is that kids today, they dream of playing for Ireland in Aviva Stadium. And that’s a great picture for them to have—the stadium is something to be proud of. It’s the home of Irish football, and they grow up dreaming about playing there.