Self-inflicted reversal in fortunes could see the best Ireland defender of his era onway out of Villa Park
AFTER being stripped of the captaincy and consigned to exile with Stephen Ireland, it is painfully obvious that the writing is on the wall for Richard Dunne's relatively brief Aston Villa career.
Last weekend, Gerard Houllier was quite happy to travel to Wigan without the Dubliner in his squad amid speculation of a second training ground bust-up between the manager and ex-captain.
Dropping Dunne to the bench for the previous week's victory over West Brom was, perhaps, an unsurprising course of action after the first training ground disagreement with Houllier and his assistant Gary McAllister.
Banishing him to the stands brings things to another level though, and represents a clear statement of intent with respect to his future at the club. A January move is now on the cards, although that depends on Villa being able to find a taker who can match his £52,000-a-week salary.
Following on from the troubles which have enveloped Shay Given and Robbie Keane, it is almost unthinkable for Giovanni Trapattoni that another one of his indispensables should suffer comparable misery.
His fall would be the most dramatic. The terminal nature of Keane's standing at Spurs has been apparent for some time. Meanwhile, with respect to Given, there was always the danger that Joe Hart would emerge as an alternative.
But Dunne hasn't been unshipped by a future star. Effectively, it is a self-inflicted reversal in fortunes. Even if he is in the right by criticising Houllier -- and the indications from the UK are that he would have squad support -- the Frenchman could reasonably cite loss of form as the reason for his decision.
The 31-year-old excelled for the Midlands club last season after Martin O'Neill capitalised on his controversial exclusion from life at Manchester City. His peers voted him into the PFA Team of the Season.
However, the second season has proved to be a disaster, with the club captain noticeably sluggish and guilty of an exorbitant amount of errors for a performer with his experience. He gave away the penalty in the Carling Cup quarter-final defeat to Birmingham, and was also exposed in heavy away defeats to Newcastle and Liverpool.
Physically, he appears to be in poor shape, something that will worry Trapattoni. Yet in the player's defence, he played through the pain barrier for the early part of the campaign with a recurring knee problem that could explain the lethargy.
Last week, a well-regarded Midlands reporter with a UK tabloid wrote a column which claimed that Dunne's fitness was a concern throughout pre-season. He also hinted that, around the club, the respected leader of the dressing-room wasn't quite himself.
Perhaps he felt let down by the manner of O'Neill's departure just days before the start of the season. After all, while Dunne realistically knew he was facing a step down when Mark Hughes -- then leader of the Manchester City revolution -- decided that spending £26m on Joleon Lescott was a better bet, Villa seemed like an acceptable alternative.
They challenged his old club last season, and flirted with the possibility of Champions League qualification. Ultimately, they fell short and O'Neill's days were numbered.
Nevertheless, that situation can't quite explain Dunne's outburst in October, when he was highly critical of Ireland's tactics in the 3-2 defeat to Russia, words that stung Trapattoni.
"As soon as Shay (Given) gets it, we all turn our back on him and run forward and see if Kevin Doyle can head it," he said at the time.
Naturally, both Trapattoni and Dunne sought to publicly deny any difficulties.
But then, last week, Houllier and Dunne moved to dismiss talk of a training-ground row. And then the under-fire boss went ahead and planned for Wigan without him. You can read between the lines there.
"There was no incident," said Houllier. "I took a football decision not to play him and Carlos Cuellar came in and did very well."
Is that where Dunne stands now? Behind Carlos Cuellar?
As the twilight of his career approaches, it's a worrying set of developments. Dunne is unquestionably the finest Irish centre-half of his era.
There have been times in the past couple of years where he has almost single-handedly kept the show on the road in difficult encounters. His performance in the drawn game with Bulgaria in Sofia, back in June 2009, springs to mind.
In addition to repelling a wave of attacks from the hosts in a tension-filled second half, he also managed to coach competitive debutant Sean St Ledger through the experience.
He was equally immense in Paris, with the enduring image of the night, the slightly unpalatable sight of Thierry Henry sitting down beside the crestfallen Dunne to offer his sympathies.
Missing out on a World Cup will have hit the big man harder than the other Irish thirty-somethings. At least Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane have the memories of involvement in Japan and South Korea eight years ago. Dunne was in the background, despite a few notable performances in the qualifiers.
He was on the brink of something major then without achieving it, and has been faced with similar disappointment of late. Leaving Manchester City as they approached the top table, and then joining a club who have made a habit of flattering to deceive has provided the Tallaght man with enough reasons to be frustrated.
It may well be that he requires a New Year change of scenery to avoid slipping into a deeper and far more worrying decline.