Wednesday 22 February 2017

Failure? It's just part of a process

It took being sacked to make Joe Dunne see that football isn't everything

Dion Fanning

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

Joe Dunne: ‘When you think of all the great Irish players . . . We can do it. We’ve done it before’
Joe Dunne: ‘When you think of all the great Irish players . . . We can do it. We’ve done it before’

Someone might have seen Joe Dunne eating a KFC chicken bucket on a hill outside Northampton Town's ground and thought it was the worst of times.

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In some ways, it was the best of times. The worst of times might not even have been when they asked him for a CV and he realised he didn't have one. He'd been in football since he was, 15 but he had nothing down on paper. All he had were his ideas, his endurance and his reputation.

Maybe the low point came when he found himself in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, as he did every Monday, and he decided things had to change. Or perhaps it was the day he came home and told his wife, Natalie, that he - a man who sometimes would go to two or three games a day - wasn't going to football matches any more.

A year ago this weekend, Joe Dunne was sacked by Colchester United. They were his club. "Joe is a Colchester United legend and I am grateful for the way he kept our club in League One during these challenging times," the club's chairman, Robbie Cowling, said in a statement announcing his dismissal. "I wish him all of the very best for the future."

The future? The future stretched out in front of him. People told him he wasn't a manager until he got the sack, but was he a manager if he couldn't get another job?

"The hardest part is getting the next job," he says, but there were plenty of hard parts to being out of work. There were plenty of hard parts to being a football manager too.

Joe had big and beautiful ideas of how football should be played, and he hasn't lost them. At Colchester United, he had his philosophy, but more importantly he had the character that had been shaped by the death of his father when he was 13. He knew only one way: "My idea of the role was, 'Everything you've got'."

He gave it his all and still management wanted more. "When you're in the management world, it's a constant storm. Win and you have to win next week. Lose, okay, don't get beat next week. I'm glad I came out of that storm."

He realised when he lost his job that he hadn't known he was in it. "I just blurred three years of my life. When you're a new manager going into it, you just throw yourself into it. You sacrifice so much, you don't realise what you're sacrificing, especially when you have a family. I don't think people who believe they can do the job understand how hard you have to work."

Robbie Cowling was good to him and other people were too. Two weeks after his dismissal, Dunne decided it was time to take some action and, at least, stay fit. He would buy a proper racing bike and push himself around the roads of Suffolk. He spent more than he should have on a top-of-the-range model, and he was on the phone to Natalie, explaining why this was a good idea, why he wasn't going to just potter about, when another call came through. It was Brendan Rodgers' PA. Rodgers wondered if Joe would like to spend a couple of days at Liverpool. "Are you busy?" Rodgers' PA asked, "When would suit you?" Joe looked at the bike in the boot of his car. "Well, the only plan I had was a long bike ride," Joe said, "so I can be there tomorrow."

He drove up to Liverpool and spent two days at the club. He went to the Champions League game against Ludogorets and the following morning he drove out to Melwood to see Rodgers. They talked for hours about life and management, then the staff asked Joe to sit in on the video analysis session from the game.

This mattered more than he could say. Rodgers had been sacked too, so they had shared experiences. "Brendan didn't have to do it and that's why he's well respected within the game as a football man."

The Liverpool manager's generosity didn't surprise Dunne. When they met as youth team coaches, Rodgers was the same. "He always came across to me as a guy who wants to help people."

There were other kindnesses. Tony Pulis called him the minute he was sacked and others spoke of what he was going through as if it was an initiation. But then the phone stopped ringing.

He began to notice a change when he went to matches too. "When you're a manager, everyone will come and talk to you. When you're not, you're just an observer. The good people still come and talk to you, and there are plenty of them in the game, but I came home one day and said to Natalie, 'I think that will do me for a bit. I think I'll leave it now'."

He didn't go to a game for two months. These were the best of times while he was out of work: "I became a dad again." His son, Louis, is on Colchester's books so he could spend more time with him and his daughters Shannon, 15, and Madison, nine.

Christmas had always been about football, but last year they did things they had never been able to do before. He enjoyed it all, but in the new year he was in Morrison's doing the weekly grocery shop when he realised something had to change.

"We were in a bit of a routine where we went shopping on a Monday. I remember being in Morrison's on one of the Mondays and just going, 'Nah, nah'. I'm used to spontaneity. I walked out, left her to it. Went to sit in the car. That's when I decided it was time to get out again."

He bought a car which would take him round the country cheaply and he got his CV done. There were things on it he'd forgotten about, things he'd achieved in the 25 years since he left Dublin to try and make it in England.

In January 2014, I spent a day with Joe Dunne when he was at Colchester. He lived a life which, he says now, was all-consuming. Then, it was simply life. A day off involved watching a game. The day's problems began the moment he turned his phone on at 6.0am. There was an issue to be resolved before he got out of bed, another before breakfast and five more before he arrived for training. And he loved it all even as it took him deeper and deeper.

He had decided to move house because he lived too close to the club he had played for since his early 20s. Instead of heading there after he left his office, he would go on long drives to make sure he didn't bring the day home with him.

They were moving into a new house when he lost his job. Colchester and Cowling were good to him so he went ahead with the move, but there was one job offer after he left Colchester which he decided not to take because he felt he owed it to his family to be around.

At the beginning of 2015, he was ready to work again. Mick McCarthy called him, asked him to watch some games. He had a few leads, got a few interviews. They went well, but the phone didn't ring. One day, he got asked to scout a player at Northampton. No pass had been arranged. He showed up at the ground on a Bank Holiday and asked if he could buy a ticket. They asked him if he was on their database - he needed to be on their database to buy a ticket. "When did you start doing this?" About 15 years ago, they said.

He had no ticket but there is a hill outside Sixfields where you can see half the pitch. Joe got his chicken bucket from KFC and hoped the toss would go the right way so he could watch the player he was there to see in the first half. It did. He rang Natalie and said if only she could see him now.

His family saved him, they always have. He always had a "driving ambition". When he was a kid, he went everywhere with his father. "He took me to every Dublin game. I remember a sing-song in the pub down in Cork for the replay of the semi-final in '83. I can still see his face. I was the only son."

His father fell ill when Joe was nine or 10 and died at the age of 45 when his only son was 13. Everything changed. "I had nobody to turn to," he says, "no man to turn to". His mother, he says, was "superwoman" who worked three jobs to keep the family going, but Joe was growing up.

His father died at 10.30 on a Saturday morning. His son phoned his manager at Cherry Orchard to see if his game was still on because he wanted to play

"If he hadn't died, I wouldn't have left home. I wouldn't be the person I am today without it. I left home and, with the greatest respect to my mum, I didn't give it a second thought. It made me grow up quick."

Joe Dunne felt he was on his own. When he went to Gillingham, he was angry. He fought with another apprentice one day and told his manager, Damien Richardson, he was going home. "What are you going home to?" Richardson said. "That scared me," he says. Joe stayed and fought.

"You're on your own. That hits. There's a moment when you either go back to Ireland or you stay and fight. I loved Gaelic football when I was a kid. I wasn't big enough, but I loved to fight."

When he looks at young players today, he wonders if the fight is there. He used to take players on loan from big clubs when he was at Colchester, and certain things were missing.

"Three points are an issue on a Saturday, and in order for that to be gained, you might have to do something you're not used to, like filling a space for a period of time or not having the ball for a period of time. That's what used to surprise me at Colchester when we took a player on loan. I'd think, 'He shouldn't be in that position. Why is he standing there?' The danger is there's a stockpiling mentality with a lot of the bigger academies. You're putting them all into a big mincer."

He admires a player like Harry Kane, who has been on loan and learned from it, but others don't impress him. "There are a lot of them who are happy to sit and be basically nothing. That's what they are. They're not playing games. They wear training kit every now and again which says whichever club it is. They sign a few autographs, but they're drifting out."

When it comes to Irish football, he's passionate but thinks Ireland needs to "press the reset button" and rebuild with a young side while planning for the future.

"For me, everything starts with coaching. I've seen coaches coach where it's a great session because the coach says it was a great session but the players have learned jackshit from it.

"As a small country, we need to identify ourselves and say, 'How do we want to play? What is the goal?' Is the goal to create young players to come to England, get into teams and then represent their country? If that's the case, they need to understand what's going on over here. Because all young players who come over from Ireland will have to play out from the back, because they all do it here bar a few. It will be split centre-backs, so if you're a centre-back coming out of Ireland, are they getting you to split? Are they getting you to go wide? In England now, it's extremely hard to make it. The game is getting quicker. Good players are filtering down from the top academies."

He believes Ireland should aim for a team of technically gifted players. "Where was Wes Hoolahan for the last few years? Technically gifted player. Missed out. Why? Why did he miss an opportunity to shine? When you think of all the great Irish players - Ronnie Whelan, Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, David O'Leary, Paul McGrath - they all could play. Good, technical players. We can do it. We've done it before."

The country should think big, he says. He likes to think big, but he knows where the mind can take you. "The fucking mind can make things exist that don't exist. When fear exists, you've got to take it on. It's an imaginary friend. It's like Moone Boy."

When the fear came, when he wondered if work would come again, he confronted it. Saturday afternoons at three o'clock had been hard. He never went to a game on a Saturday. Instead, he got on his bike and cycled for an hour-and-a-half. On the last day of the season, Colchester needed to win to stay in League One. He dropped Louis to the ground and told him, "I think you'll win today." Some fans saw him and asked him if he was going to the game. He wasn't, but he went home and instead of going out on his bike, he watched the updates on TV. Colchester United won 1-0.

On the Monday morning, his phone rang. Cambridge United were restructuring and they wanted him to become assistant to Richard Money. He started straight away. He has been an assistant before, but he sees it differently having sat in the manager's chair. He's enjoying thinking about the game, something you don't get much time for when you're a manager.

He is part of the fellowship now, a manager who has suffered. There's no room for failure any more, he says. "I was brought up with the Rocky movies. I was brought up with the underdog and supporting Ireland. I grew up understanding that if you got knocked down, you got back up again. If you are knocked down, learn from your mistakes and move on.

"I've always believed that failure is part of a process, failure must be part of any process. All the successful people have failed. These days, we see people who fail or who are in a difficult situation and they are expected to resign, retire, leave, and the buck has to stop with you. We need instant gratification in everything we do now. That's how society is moving on."

It's not how he sees life. It's never been easy, he says, and the nine months he was out of work were hard. But the worst of times? Well, he knows when that was. It was a long time ago. "I still miss him," he says.

He is pleased to be working and hasn't thought about what's coming next. He knows how things used to be and he says he's changed from the man who was consumed by the job.

"You'd get your work done and then you'd go and find more work. I don't think I ever got a day off. Now if I get a day off, it's precious. I don't go searching for a match. I stay at home, I read a book. I take the kids out, I spend a bit more time with Natalie, we go for a coffee. It's a whole new way of life. You sit there and you think 'What the fuck was I doing?' That's what the job does to you. But would I do it all again? Of course I would."

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