Monday, 6 August 2012

Frank Stapleton

1987 - 1988 : Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1987 - 1988 : Anderlecht (Belgium)
1988 - 1989 : Le Havre (France)
1996 : New England (U.S.A.)

He was born Dublin in the summer of 1956 and would go on to become one of Ireland's most talented players of his generation. In a career that saw him become a favourite at Arsenal and Manchester United; he scored over 150 goals for his clubs and 20 for Ireland. This international tally made him Ireland's leading goalscorer until Niall Quinn broke his record in 2001.

Frank Stapleton joined Arsenal as a teenager with fellow Dubliners Liam Brady and David O'Leary. Partnering Malcolm McDonald up front, the two scored 46 goals between them in the 1976-77 season. The highlight of his career with the Gunners would be the FA Cup Final in 1979 when he scored in a 3-2 win over Manchester United.

Two years later, he controversially moved to the Red Devils for 900,000 pounds. With United he won two further FA Cups in 1983 and 1985. However, in 1986 United hired Alex Ferguson as their new manager. The Scot was determined to reshape the team, stamping his own seal and signing new players. This new policy affected Stapleton and Irish team-mate Kevin Moran.

Both decided to head abroad, as Moran headed to Spain in 1988, and in 1987, at the age of 31 and having scored over 70 senior goals for Manchester United  , Stapleton went to Holland.

He was sold to Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam for 100,000 pounds, becoming the second Irishman to work for the club after Jack Kirwan, their first manager in 1910-15.

Stapleton, centre, beside manager Johan Cruyff
Stapleton began the season with Ajax, in a talented side that included Frank Rijkaard, Danny Blind and Aaron Winter, and coached by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. Cruyff wanted an experienced "English style forward" to replace Milan-bound Marco van Basten and Stapleton seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

In September 1987 he played against Irish side Dundalk, as Ajax looked to defend their European Cup Winners' Cup crown. He scored the sixth goal in the first leg at De Meer, being set up by Rijkaard in the 87th minute. This would prove to be his only goal in an Ajax shirt. He was named Ireland captain that month, leading his country to victories over Bulgaria and Luxembourg.

However, this promising start to the season soon broke down. Stapleton's kick and rush style, so well suited to Manchester United and Ireland, didn't transfer at all well to Ajax's direct, fluid passing game. To add to this problem, a hernia injury cut his season short after just six matches. When he returned to fitness, he found his place taken by a young Dennis Bergkamp. Clearly he wasn't going to fit in well at the club, and having arrived in summer fanfare, he departed quietly on loan to Belgian club Anderlecht. He is still considered one of Ajax's worst players, and certainly one of Cruyff's worst signings.

He spent three months with Anderlecht at the end of 1987. However, the club already had Luc Nilis, Eduvard Krncevic, Pierre Janssen and Arnor Gudjohnsen as striking options, meaning Stapleton would have huge competition. All four of these forwards played extremely well that season, as their goals helped Anderlecht march to the European Cup Quarter-Finals and the Belgian Cup title. Stapleton barely featured and returned to Ajax in January.

Early 1988 saw Cruyff become the manager of Spain's Barcelona, and when Stapleton returned from Belgium, he was told that new coach Kurt Linder didn't want him. So it was he returned to England in March to spend the remainder of the season on loan with Derby County. Following this stint, he was released from his contract by Ajax.

While his career at club level appeared by be going nowhere, at international level Stapleton was flying high. In June of 1988, still without a club he led the Republic of Ireland at the European Championships in West Germany. Stapleton didn't find the net, but Ireland gave a good account of themselves, beating England and earning a hard-fought draw with the USSR before being beaten by the Netherlands, who featured a number of Stapleton's former team-mates at Ajax.
Stapleton (back-row, far-left) with the Rep of Ireland team at Euro'88
He would spend much of the next season without a club, and still struggling with his hernia problem. Eventually in January 1989, he was signed by French Ligue 2 side Le Havre. Another new signing for Le club doyen that season had been Irish striker John Byrne. A fellow member of Ireland's Euro 1988 squad, Byrne had sparred before with Stapleton in England's Division One. The two Irishmen linked up front for the rest of the 1988-89 season. 

Le Havre were founded in 1872 as a rugby club and play at the 25,000 capacity Stade Oceane. Although they have never won the French Championship in their long history, they do have a Coupe de France title to their name, winning it in 1959. 

In 1988, they were in the French second division and coached by Pierre Mankowski who signed the two Irishmen. Stapleton played 18 games and scored 5 goals in his only season in France. While with Le Havre, he represented Ireland three times, including a friendly against France. Le Havre finished the season in 3rd place, 3 points behind Lyon who were promoted. Stapleton wouldn't stay and moved to Blackburn Rovers.

Byrne faired better, netting 16 goals in two years with the side. Byrne is still fondly remembered by Le Havre fans, while Stapleton is virtually forgotten.

He spent two years with Blackburn before having a swansong with Bradford in the early 90s and retired from football in 1995. 

In January 1996; he was appointed the Head Coach of New England Revolution in the United States. The Revolution, and indeed the MLS (Major League Soccer) were both in their first full years of existence. MLS had been created that year to once again attempt to improve American/Canadian soccer. This was the first major attempt at such a feat since the heyday of the NASL decades before.

New England were set up in Foxborough, Massachusetts and attempted to garner support and identity from the six states in the region. Their name refers to New England's significant role in the American Revolution, and their colours and emblem reinforce this. Their ground was the Foxboro Stadium, which was once the home field of Gerry Daly's New England Tea Men. 

Among others, Stapleton had legendary American defender Alexei Lalas in his squad. The Revolution's first ever game was a 2-3 loss at the Tampa Bay Mutiny in April, but just a week later they scored their first ever victory away to the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. On April 27th, Revolution played its first ever home match at the Foxboro. Against DC United, it ended in a 1-1 stalemate, but as Americans weren't comfortable with ties, they match went to a penalty shoot-out and Stapleton's team won. 

Stapleton's Revolution squad in 1996

In the end, the Revolution came last in the Eastern Conference, winning 6 tied games but not enough in regular time. It had been a tumultuous year for the team, with rumours that Stapleton and Lalas had often clashed in the dressing room. He was also vastly unpopular with the Revolution fans and had regularly criticised the soccer culture in America and the new MLS. Stapleton's record stood at 17 losses, 6 ties and just 3 out-and-out wins. A negative return, and he resigned in June. Upon departing he said;

"After reflecting on the season and the affective structure of Major League Soccer, I have determined that it is in the best interests of my family and my future career as a professional soccer coach to return to England to pursue opportunities there."

That future career in coaching never materialised and today he is an occasional television pundit and after-dinner speaker.

He wasn't the first Irishman at the Foxboro Stadium, and wouldn't be the last. Richie Baker, Bryan Byrne and Paul Keegan would all grace New England again, with varying degrees of success.

Stapleton was a giant in English football in the late 70s and early 80s. His goal scoring abilities marked him out as one of the finest strikers of his age, and certainly made him unique amongst compatriots. But perhaps, by the time he left England for a new challenge, his playing abilities were on the wane. Whatever about his style of football, there is little to suggest that Stapleton was anything like a top-class footballer after he left Manchester United. Perhaps Alex Ferguson was right.

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