Richard Dunne: Last orders
Dunne's latest fall from grace suggests he has veered from role model back to disruptive ways of his early career, writes Daniel McDonnell
A few years ago, Richard Dunne was sitting in Portmarnock at a press briefing before an Irish international joking about how sick he was of being asked questions about his reformed character.
The comment was offered in the hope that his life story would have a different narrative other than the bad boy who cleaned up his act.
It's a different tale now, alright, a chapter without a happy ending. The fear is that the wheel has turned full circle. The 21-year-old Dunne was used to commanding headlines about booze-fuelled antics, but the 31-year-old version? That stigma was supposed to be dead and gone.
Instead, we're left to wonder what on earth has happened to Ireland's rock over the past 12 months. And what of the year ahead if old demons have returned.
Dunne was the outstanding Irish player in the Premier League last season. More than that, he was actually one of the top flight's most impressive performers in 2009/10. Certainly, his peers thought as much when he was voted into the PFA team of the campaign, with observers united in their condemnation of Manchester City's decision to push him aside. It was a rash act widely believed to be Aston Villa's gain.
In Birmingham, they're now beginning to wonder if the Tallaght man is a burden and he is considered a certainty to be shown the door in the summer after his drunken row with coaching staff at a team bonding session last week.
Dunne, who was nursing a shoulder injury, was drinking with team-mate James Collins throughout a day that started with paintballing. It ended in a hotel bar with insults being fired, apparently in the direction of French fitness coach Robert Duverne, a man who was also involved in angry confrontations during the Les Bleus implosion in South Africa.
Duverne was subsequently brought to Villa Park by Gerard Houllier. Dunne doesn't appear to have appreciated the change of regime, reportedly criticising strict training drills and programmes that he would expect in pre-season rather than mid-term.
Houllier and his assistant Gary McAllister weren't present for the row with Duverne, but, considering Dunne's highly publicised fallout with the latter before Christmas -- a training ground argument that was followed by a brief period in exile -- then his feelings on the management team seem to be reasonably clear.
He is receiving little sympathy from his club's supporters, however, given his below-par displays since the departure of O'Neill. A certain sluggishness has been noted, although early in the campaign he was struggling with a recurring knee injury.
Nevertheless, reporters covering the Midlands beat have indicated that the player's fitness was an issue when he turned up to start pre-season last summer, and there have been repeated concerns expressed throughout the campaign.
After the latest blow-up, one English newspaper stated that the club were concerned about his 'lifestyle', a comment that was left open to interpretation.
It's eerily familiar territory. Ten years ago, Dunne himself acknowledged that he was at a career crossroads due to unprofessional behaviour, often associated with alcohol.
He famously approached journalists at the infamous barbecue before the 2002 World Cup, with a cigarette in one hand and drink in the other, to query why people were so concerned about his lifestyle.
A missed training session at Everton was part of the breakdown in his relationship with Walter Smith that eventually led to a promising talent being sold to Manchester City. In his new environs, further run-ins with Kevin Keegan almost resulted in his sacking, with the nadir reached when he arrived into training one morning in a state that his boss politely described as "dishevelled."
Intervention from the PFA and an understanding approach from Keegan led to a process of rehabilitation instead of punishment. Dunne lost in the region of two stone, got the head down and developed into a fine Premier League defender.
"When you are a young lad, you want to go out a lot, but I had to realise I am a professional, and that people are paying hard-earned money to come and watch me," he said, in November of 2002, after getting on the right track.
"It was a matter of just turning a switch in my head. Just realising that 'You're 23 now. You're a professional footballer. Now get on with it, and start acting like a professional'."
Last week, he was apologising again. This time, there was no denial. No suggestion that a newspaper had stitched him up. His only quote on the matter was an apology through the 'News of the World'.
Unfortunately, the issue of Irish footballers and drink is a recurring theme. Tales of revelry between the crunch Euro 2012 qualifiers with Russia and Slovakia last October spread like wildfire, with conflicting versions of what management had actually permitted.
Drinking remains an integral part of the English football culture, though, as Roberto Mancini despaired when a quartet of his squad, including Shay Given, were filmed partying with students at a house party in St Andrews.
The difference is that youngsters who engage are generally forgiven, like the young Dunne who suddenly became a wealthy man with time on his hands. People can generally accept that pitfalls do exist, and that footballers should be allowed to unwind with a few drinks when the time is right.
But when the timing is wrong, and the culprits are experienced professionals in the Irish camp, then it is a far more alarming chain of events.
It causes a headache for Giovanni Trapattoni. Dunne is arguably the most authoritative member of his dressing-room, and has shown great leadership qualities to bring along his defensive partner, Sean St Ledger. He was integral in the conversion of fellow Aston Villa man Ciaran Clark to the Irish cause. Clark listened intently to his advice and left England behind.
Similarly, when Dunne was critical of the Irish approach in the October defeat to Russia, people sat up and listened because of the respect in which he is held. Yet, in a relatively short space of time, Dunne has veered from role model and dressing-room leader to an individual with the label of disruptive influence attached. Once more, the PFA received the call to come in and fight his corner.
The good news, for those who have reason to be concerned, is that he's been in choppy waters before and returned stronger than ever. The bad news is that, despite his seniority and supposed maturity, he has strayed back.
Recovery will be dependent on winning the trust of prospective suitors. Otherwise, his top flight existence will be approaching last orders.