After 14 years and 80 caps Richard Dunne has brought the (Iron) curtain down on his International career. A final farewell under the temporary stewardship of Noel King in a sparsely populated Lansdowne Road seemed oddly fitting. Dunne was a no-nonsense type of player, although this demeanour and approach occasionally meant that some underestimated him as a footballer, an understated game like the one against Kazakhstan seemed appropriate for his send-off.
Perhaps a more significant recent international game was his return to the side in the 4-0 friendly win over Georgia, Dunne who hadn’t kicked a ball in a year and had been released by Aston Villa the previous month. Without a club and with fans unsure whether he was still capable of playing at any reasonable level, Dunne entered the fray as a 64th minute substitute, Ireland were cruising to victory against a 10 man Georgian side and Richard was able to ease himself back into elite level football.
Many felt like this game might be a goodbye, that more than fifteen years of putting his body at risk with his combative style of play had taken their toll and that Dunne was finished as a player. It is testament to his tenacity that he was able to overcome the physical horrors of his 2012-13 campaign and instead prove to be a defensive lynchpin in the QPR side that gained promotion to the Premier League and showed no sign that he had tempered the 100% commitment approach that made him so popular with supporters.
That his career could all have been so different has not often been recognised. That Dunne’s talent was obvious from an early age was clear. As a young Home Farm player he was part of various Irish underage teams and I can still remember the excitement in the Irish Everton Supporters fanzine at his signing for the Toffees. There hadn’t really been a prominent Irish international as a Goodison regular since the days of Kevin Sheedy and there were great hopes for Dunne and understandably so. He made his first team debut for Everton at the age of 17 under Joe Royle, playing most often as a right back and although already a member of the first team squad he was also a key member of the successful 1997-98 FA Youth Cup winning squad along with current Everton stalwarts Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert.
While much was expected of the bright young things of that generation star forwards Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri faded into obscurity, while fellow Irishman; the teams’ keeper Dean Delaney has carved out a decent career for himself in the League or Ireland. It is Dunne that perhaps has progressed furthest (with the greatest respect to both Osman and Hibbert) not only on the club scene but at international level as well. Around the time of the youth cup triumph Dunne was involved in Brian Kerr’s squad that got to the semi-finals of the European under 18 Championship in Iceland.
It was during his time at Everton, under Walter Smith’s tenure that disciplinary issues first raised their head, this was one of the reasons that Smith was willing to part with Dunne when Manchester City came calling, reuniting him with Joe Royle. Relegation, a new manager in the form of Kevin Keegan, and a return to the Premier League would follow but so to would a recurrence of those disciplinary problems.
In 2002 Dunne’s career reached arguably its lowest ebb, sent home from training for turning up for in a “dishevelled” state it seemed as though his obvious talent might be at risk of being wasted. Looking back now after Dunne has won 80 caps it seems strange to consider that he could have been yet another one of the footballing “what might have beens”. It is credit to his strength of character and the relentless positivity of his then manager Keegan that he turned his career around.
With the arrival of Stuart Pearce saw Dunne move into one of the best phases of his career, winning four Player of the Year awards at City (Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee have won four between them) and forming a rock-solid central defensive partnership with Sylvain Distin. There were still ups and downs during his City term but they were certainly not of Dunne’s doing; infamously he was involved in a confrontation with Joey Barton after the later had slapped a 15-year-old on a pre-season tour in Thailand, Dunne would pick up an injury reportedly after kicking the wall in frustration at Barton’s behaviour.
But this was Dunne the Captain trying to keep an errant team-mate out of trouble. The last term of his City stay was soured somewhat after the Club’s takeover by businessman and former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra (currently living in exile to avoid a prison sentence) and the employment of Garry Cook as Chief Executive. Cook, a morally dubious, PR embarrassment infamously said of Dunne:
China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we’re going to tell them that City is their content. We need a superstar to get through that door. Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing.
A serious misjudgement of Dunne’s popularity with the City faithful, though this would be of little concern to Dunne, as a player he never cared about being a superstar or having a major media profile. Dunne would be manoeuvred out of Man City under the Shinawatra/Cook regime, moving to Aston Villa for £5million and linking up with current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. While Shinawatra was convicted in absentia and Garry Cook would be forced to resign after sending an abusive email to Nedum Onouha’s ill mother, Dunne would form a formidable central defensive partnership with Welsh international James Collins and would be named in the 2009-10 Premier League Team of the year. He would remain a key member of the Villa team under Alex McLeish, however an ageing and injured Dunne would be released by current boss Paul Lambert in 2013 before making his free transfer to QPR.
Dunne has sometimes been unfairly caricatured as a footballing throwback, a tough and no-nonsense defender but limited as a footballer. I feel this is somewhat unfair, even as an underage player in Brian Kerr’s sides it was obvious that Dunne was a good footballer, quite aside from his imposing physique, he could pass the ball out of defence well and was occasionally given set-piece duties. He remains a threat from set pieces and his 8 national team goals, including the winner versus Armenia in the 2012 European qualifiers, (it is a concern for Ireland that few of our attacking players have even close to eight strikes). Perhaps one of my favourite sights on a football pitch were Dunne’s occasional trademark bursts forward from defence in his caveman Maradona style.
Having said that there is something atavistic in football fans, all football fans, that takes great pleasure in great physical centre half play, for all the beauty of Barcelona’s tiki-taka the commitment, intensity and physicality of Carles Puyol was always central to their success, so too with Dunne, his highlights reel against Russia is a master class of last-ditch interceptions towering headers and body-checks. As a child growing up in the 1980s my footballing hero, like many others, was Paul McGrath and despite the worthy claims of Breen and Cunningham, Richard Dunne is in my opinion the best since Big Paul.
Paul was more versatile; playing at full-back and in midfield, and in his peak he had far greater pace than Dunne, as well as a penchant for a footballing flourish, a back-heel or the like but he and Dunne shared that same imposing physicality that intimidated opponents and reassured teammates.
Hardly ever beaten in the air and known for playing through the pain barrier both men have had their great international careers encapsulated into one game; Paul in Giants Stadium v Italy and Dunne v Russia in the Luzhniki in Moscow, the gaps in terms of quality of the surrounding team demonstrated by the fact that Paul’s signature game was a victory in a World Cup, Dunne’s a hard-fought draw in a Euro qualifier.
During his early international Dunne had to compete with both Breen, Cunningham and Steve Staunton for the centre half berth. A key player for Mick McCarthy in qualifying for World Cup 2002, especially in the two games versus the Netherlands, Dunne was unfortunate to remain on the bench throughout the tournament with Breen and Staunton (captain after Roy Keane’s departure) the favoured pairing.
At the age of 22 he may not have expected to have to wait another 10 years before he got his next chance to play in a major tournament. Sadly for Dunne, and others like Damien Duff and Shay Given, Euro 2012, the tournament that should have been a swan song for the Kerr’s kids generation was a disaster, Ireland losing all three games and conceding eight goals. Dunne had only recently made a return from a broken collarbone and Shay Given did not seem to be 100% fit either, however being brutally honest it was clearly a team in decline.
Trapattoni had, with a certain amount of justification identified Premier League stalwarts like Dunne, Given, Duff, O’Shea and Keane as representing a core group of quality that could get a conservative and defensive Irish side to a major championship. Perhaps the most fitting stage for this generation of Irish stars would have been the World Cup 2010 but events in Paris were to prevent that from happening. One of the defining images of that night is of Dunne’s huge frame, stoic but crestfallen sitting on the Paris turf.
Theirry Henry, possibly out of guilt, or out of some sense of empathy for a fellow champion sat down with Dunne to perhaps offer some words of consolation. Dunne admitted at his final press conference that although there is still hate for what Henry did he would have done the same himself given the opportunity, what hurt him most though was the knowledge was that Paris was his last, best chance for a World Cup and that the squad as it was then could have made an impact on the tournament.
For all the caveats, mistakes and what-ifs about his career Dunne has provided something that Irish football has lacked for some time, a rock solid, Premier League standard centre half, a reassuring presence who gives confidence to those around him. The Charlton era was spoiled with an abundance of riches in defence, McGrath, Moran, McCarthy, O’Leary etc. When they retired I remembered surveying the landscape of what was to come with a certain dread, how could Phil Babb, Gary Breen or Liam Daish ever match what went before? But then isn’t that natural for a nation like Ireland, quality in our national team is patchy and cyclical? Perhaps in a year or two this will all look so pessimistic; perhaps John Egan or Tommie Hoban will have made a step up to the next level and will have established themselves as the next great Irish centre half.
Watching the early Irish sides of the McCarthy managerial era I never expected us to go to a World Cup with a centre back pairing of Breen and Staunton yet both excelled in the tournament. Even Dunne’s own career shows the folly of trying to predict the future. Yet the feeling remains that what Dunne brought to the Irish team was special and that it may be some time before we see his like again.