'In my opinion it was the right thing to say at the right time'
Richard Dunne's criticisms of Ireland's long-ball failings had the desired effect, as he tells Dion Fanning
It was hard to tell if the Aston Villa fans waiting outside a travel agent on Thursday in Sutton Coldfield had been told to stay on the street or if they had assumed the position instinctively.
They queued patiently down the street while the uncommitted wandered into the shop looking for a holiday. Soon the travel agent would be taken over by the devoted and the man who had turned up wondering what the exchange rate was for the Turkish lira would have to battle through the mob.
"Is Ashley Young in there?" one fan demanded. When told Young wasn't, he sighed, "That's ruined my day" before heading off to embrace the other splendours of Sutton Coldfield's main drag.
The rest had come to see Richard Dunne and Marcus Albrighton and possibly remind them of what today's game means to them. Aston Villa play Birmingham at noon and the Villa fans of Sutton Coldfield know how important it is.
Albrighton is a local boy so they had no need to explain it to him (he was sent off the night before and is suspended, so also there was no point) and Richard Dunne has never had any problem grasping the significance of these games.
Dunne has played in Manchester and Merseyside derbies but that is not the only reason he gets it. He is a player who, at the age of 31, has become an authoritative figure. He arrived at Villa at the dog-end of the transfer window a year ago. He was a Manchester City discard, a relic from the past, City's player of the year four times.
By the end of the season, he had made the PFA Team of the Season, demonstrating how quickly he had settled into his new club and played in every league game, including the two victories against Birmingham.
"All derbies are quite similar, there's a lot of pressure involved," says Dunne. "The atmosphere around the town with the banter is different. The first 15, 20 minutes will be intense with tackles flying in but after that we've got to get the ball down and play. They are very similar wherever you go, although some are obviously bigger to a worldwide audience."
Villa have a new manager and a new experience too. Martin O'Neill is gone, replaced by Gerard Houllier. While O'Neill prowled, gnarled and contorted on the touchline, Houllier is more reserved, possibly thinking about what he will say next. "You don't really notice the manager once the game starts. Unless he calls you over, you can't really hear him."
There haven't been a lot of changes so far under Houllier. "The preparation under most managers is basically the same, they do the same sort of training but obviously they have their different ideas of how you play football when you have the ball. Over the past few weeks results haven't been exactly what we wanted, but performance-wise and in terms of creating chances I think we've done really well. As the season goes on, we'll grow into that."
Dunne wants to stress the importance of the three points today. It is the fallback position for a player before a derby but, with a point between the two sides, and the need for Villa to move up the table, he might even mean it.
He doesn't get sucked in to limiting Villa's ambitions. "We'd like to continue doing what we've been doing," he says. "Top six has been a regular position for us. With the squad we have we obviously feel we have the ability to get there. The manager will probably make a few signings in January to strengthen the squad. The league is so tight that a couple of wins will get us there."
Houllier has brought in double training sessions but Dunne says it is "not a massive fitness drive" and has found the new regime quite enjoyable. He has struggled with injury this season and when Stiliyan Petrov was injured, Houllier made Nigel Reo-Coker captain. Dunne has the personality for the job, for club and country, but it is one of football's trappings that doesn't concern him. "I was captain a few times last season but Nigel wasn't in the team. He was vice-captain before I arrived but the captaincy doesn't matter. I think too much is made of it, it's probably more hassle than it's worth. When you get out on the pitch, everyone is shouting at each other. For Ireland, Robbie has to go and do interviews and all that."
His friend Robbie Keane was criticised again after the Slovakia game but Dunne thinks there is no merit to it. "People are on his back constantly but they just have to look at his goalscoring record, it's amazing."
Keane may be a player who joins Dunne at Villa in January. Dunne left City in search of stability and purpose. The departure of O'Neill brought more uncertainty but he says he doesn't look back at Manchester City and wonder.
"Once you're out the door, you forget about it. You can't look back and have bad feelings because I had nine really good years there. They've moved on again and become a really strong, powerful club but it was time for me to go. I'm getting everything I want from football at Aston Villa."
At City, he says, things were changing all around him but he wasn't. The same drive to training, the same personal routine even as the club looked for a revolution. City will, he believes, win the league title, but to do it he thinks they will need something that money often undermines: patience.
"I don't think it's going to happen as easily as they think it will if they keep throwing money at it. It will take time and a settled manager before it comes. The progress they've made, they're a tough team to beat and a tough team to play against. I think eventually they will win the league."
Dunne's commitment, wherever he is, can't be questioned. As well as growing into Ireland's most reliable player, he has become a recruiting officer, ensuring that Villa's Ciaran Clark declared for the country of his parents.
As soon as Dunne arrived at the club, he heard people talking about Clark -- "he's going to be an outstanding player" and his quality became apparent in training.
After a pre-season friendly against Valencia in August, Dunne got talking to Clark's parents and, noticing their accents, mentioned to the FAI that there was a player worth pursuing. "I like him as a lad, he's got an old head on young shoulders and it's only a matter of time before he becomes a regular in both teams."
Clark may be one of the new faces in Dublin next month but Dunne doesn't expect many surprises. "The manager usually sticks with the same core players to start with. I think the manager is consistent in the fact that he just picks the same 11 if it's available. I think that's where we get our consistency from. We've only lost one qualifier so it has been working."
It didn't work against Russia and Dunne spoke honestly after that defeat about Ireland's failure to pass the ball and take responsibility. "It's alright going long with it, it's probably the easy way out for players. We've got to try and get our foot on the ball and try and pass it and create chances," he said after the game.
It led to a debate about the tactics under Trapattoni and whether it was the players or the manager who were responsible for the long-ball approach.
"It's everyone's responsibility," Dunne says now. "The manager sets out his team and sets out his tactics, that's probably 50 per cent of the game. The other 50 per cent is what the players do when they have the ball. It's straight down the line. It starts from the players. The manager sets out his set-pieces and tactics but when we have the ball we have to be braver."
He is asked if he will be less forward in speaking immediately after a defeat. "You can just sit back and cover it up and never say anything and then it just happens again and again and again. I'd rather have said it and at least people know and things might change. I think when we played Slovakia they changed, we played good football and we looked the better team for it. I've never regretted saying it. In my opinion, it was the right thing to say at the right time. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, I think it helped the team."
Did it make for an uncomfortable weekend in Portmarnock? "Not at all. I mean, we're quite open within the squad. If anyone has any problems or anything we can discuss it. That's my opinion, it may not have been the right one. The manager obviously wants everything to be kept in-house and for that reason possibly I shouldn't have said it. But if I didn't think it would have an effect, I wouldn't have done it. But I think it did put a bit more pressure on us to get down and pass it and we responded well to it."
Dunne isn't fatalistic about Ireland's chances of qualifying for tournaments. People, he says, shouldn't get "sucked into the idea that Russia is a better footballing side than us". From that comes the idea that "all we can do is knock it long then we can't get out of it. We've got Premier League players all over the pitch and we've got to believe in our own ability."
Dunne won't hesitate to deliver the same message again but, at 31, he says he isn't interested in coaching or management.
"I don't think so. I'll have been in football 20 years when I retire so to go straight into a coaching role where you could have another 20 years wouldn't really appeal to me."
But he has shown he has plenty of ideas about the game? "Yeah, they're probably all wrong though." He might not be right about that.
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