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Frank Stapleton

Frank Stapleton will be long remembered as one of the greats of Irish football with a total of 71 caps, a then record of 20 international goals, distinguished service with such quality clubs as Arsenal and Manchester United and then seeing out the twilight of a magnificent playing career with brief spells at Ajax, Derby County, Le Havre and Blackburn Rovers.

Perhaps the best header of a ball Ireland ever had, Stapleton will always be remembered as the thorough professional who trained hard, constantly improved his skills, never lost his cool and was a selfless team player. Those attributes served him well over the years.

As a raw teenager 'Stapo' took the same mail-boat to England as an apprentice with David O'Leary, Liam Brady and Johnny Murphy way back in 1972 to join the Gunners. The rest is history - the trio left an indelible mark on English football and Murphy returned home to become a quality Irish rugby full-back while playing for Greystones.

Stapleton quickly adjusted to the demands of English football and made his debut as an 18 year old at Highbury against Stoke City in March 1975. Then came his international debut under then player-manager Johnny Giles in a friendly against Turkey the following year in Ankara.

Incredibly the 20 year old Dubliner was on target after just three minutes when heading home a Giles free-kick at the near post.  That  'friendly' international finished 3-3 and marked the start of a magnificent international career for the always quiet and reserved Stapleton.

Despite playing a memorable role in Arsenal's never to be forgotten 3-2 FA Cup final victory over Manchester United at Wembley in the summer of 1979, the desire to win the top trophies saw Stapleton move to Old Trafford two years later when Ron Atkinson paid £800,000 for his services.        

Significantly Stapleton showed his true green colours before the deal was completed when insisting on a clause in his contract that he would be released for Irish international games - friendly or competitive. The World Cup finals in Spain 1982 should have been Stapo's international highlight.

Goals against Cyprus, Holland and France for Stapleton in the qualifying matches were not enough as the Republic were cruelly denied a place at the football banqueting table by a superior French goal difference. Manager Eoin Hand made Stapleton his captain for the World Cup qualifying campaign the following year - but team results left a lot to be desired.

Big Jack Charlton took over as Irish boss in 1986 and he kept Stapleton as skipper despite a sometimes uneasy relationship between the two men. Frank scored a magnificent diving header in the opening Euro '88 qualifer against Belgium in the 2-2 draw at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels that September. And he was then on the mark in the 2-1 defeat by Bulgaria in Sofia on April 1,1987 with another goal against Luxembourg in the 2-1 victory at Lansdowne that September.

Stapleton led Charlton's men throughout the 1988 Euro finals and those never to be forgotten matches against England 1-0 (Stuttgart), Soviet Union 1-1 (Hanover) and Holland 0-1 (Gelsenkirchen). But the Dubliner's days at international level were numbered.

Stapleton remained on the fringe of the national team during qualification for World Cup Italia '90 making just two appearances late in the campaign. But he was to have the final say with an 87th minute goal against Malta in a 3-0 friendly in Valetta just prior to those finals in Italy.  A total of 71 caps and 20 goals - Stapleton's memory will live long as one of Ireland's greatest strikers.

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