Tuesday 16 January 2018

Dunne seizes his chance to make amends

No Tipperary man was happier than Benny Dunne last Sunday, writes Damian Lawlor

FOR an entire year, the thoughts of appearing in another All-Ireland final and seeking a shot at redemption fuelled Benny Dunne.

Last September, barely on the field seven minutes, referee Diarmuid Kirwan flashed a red card at him after a high pull across Tommy Walsh. In just one mad moment everything changed.

"I'd never won anything in the blue and gold jersey until 2008. Played three years under 21 and six seasons senior but nothing. Then Liam Sheedy came in, we won a Munster in '08 but last year's final

. . . well that was the biggest game of my life. The biggest day of my life."

Walsh was in defiant mood and after 45 minutes Dunne was sent into the fray. Tipp were ahead and had Kilkenny on the back foot when it all went wrong for Dunne, and Tipperary.

In the stands, the Dunne family got a taste of what lay ahead. Some Tipp fans were furious and looking for scapegoats. A tight-knit clan, they left Croke Park knowing that tough times lay ahead.

"My brother Tommy was the first man into the Tipp dressing room after that game," he recalls. "Came into comfort me. Knew how big a deal it was. That was a serious consolation. Outside, Liam Sheedy was defending me in front of the press and TV cameras. I won't forget that either.

"Inside our dressing room, with no-one saying a word, Declan Fanning stood up and said he was standing behind me. He said a few more words too. They put the hair standing right on the back of my neck. I'll never forget him either."

Though he could scarcely face it, he went to the Burlington Hotel for the post-match banquet. "I went down to the table where the whole family were, my parents, the brothers and their partners. We all looked at each other without saying a word. No-one could talk and there was nothing to be said. Nothing could make it any better.

"It was them I felt sorry for. I let them all down. It was stupid, it was a straight red and I was sorry for it. They had to go to work the next day and while they were brilliant to me I knew I'd let them down.

"John [Mullane] went on The Sunday Game that night and asked people to lay off and I'll always appreciate that," Dunne says. "I texted him to say thanks and I meant it. He went through things himself and he was brilliant."

In the weeks after the game, he was overwhelmed by the messages of support. One day, while at work, his phone rang. He didn't recognise the number and presumed it was business-related. It wasn't. It was Alan Quinlan, the Munster and Ireland rugby forward.

"I'd only met Alan once and maybe knew him to salute him but that was about it," Dunne says. "Tommy knows him okay, but to get someone like that calling you was amazing. It gave me a right lift altogether."

The Dunnes are the lifeblood of their club, Toomevara, and have given incredible service to Tipperary hurling, with Tommy, Terry, Ken and Benny all playing inter-county senior. Going back to club duty helped eradicate the soreness, but it was a long winter.

In March, the 29-year-old featured in the league games against Dublin and Kilkenny before taking a break from the scene to marry Elaine Shanahan, his girlfriend of nine years. They honeymooned in Thailand, and the holiday provided welcome respite.

"It was a great break and I probably needed it as the seasons had been rolling into one with club and county," he says.

After the honeymoon, he returned for a challenge match against Dublin in Nenagh but ended up with a broken wrist which ruled him out of the championship opener against Cork.

"I was just looking for the chance to get back playing and hopefully make something good happen again but then I was out of the loop again," he recalls. "I was back on the bench for the qualifier against Wexford but wasn't fully fit in all honesty."

Following some decent displays in training he'd been hoping to feature at some stage against Waterford but that didn't materialise either, adding to his disappointment. Still, he gave management a real dilemma with a powerful display against Portumna in a challenge match.

Last Sunday, with seven minutes left, Conor O'Mahony injured and the midfield of Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher tiring, Dunne was told to warm up. Tipp were four points up but Kilkenny were still hovering. Everything to play for. He'd been here before.

"I didn't have time to even think before I was on the pitch," he says. "And I was all at sea for about five minutes. The game was fragmented; it had broken down and I was struggling to get into it. And then, Dave (Young, his clubmate) saw me out of the corner of his eye and threw me a pass. Landed in the hand, thankfully." Under pressure, Dunne struck a beauty. Point. "When I saw the ball making it, I just felt pure relief coursing through," he says.

At the end of last Sunday's decider, he sought Walsh out and they shook hands. Another chapter closed.

"Like, I didn't even know if I'd be used for the final, it was disappointing not to get on against Waterford and so I had doubts whether I'd be even used. But I started showing form in training and challenge matches, and gave it a right lash. I knew I was going to be an option for midfield or nowhere else so I needed to get my own game up to pace of being involved in an All-Ireland final. That's what I worked on.

"After the presentation, I waited for Liam and we remembered the few words we had in the Burlington last year when he guaranteed and promised us that we would be back next year and would win.

"I suppose the overriding emotion now is relief. What a difference a year makes. The great thing was that we all got to meet each other after the final whistle. Everyone to a man got to give a hug or whatever, there was fierce emotion between lads and management that three years' work had come together.

"It was nice to get our own space; I couldn't believe it the supporters stayed off the pitch but it was well marshalled and just to have ourselves there was brilliant even though I felt for supporters."

The past year has been a defining one for Dunne, who says the sending off has made him stronger as a person. "I would have got smart comments on the street or when working but we're inter-county hurlers -- that's what happens; no point in reacting either. The media and TV were not too bad on me, in fairness, but I had eight years' service given and I hoped I wouldn't be remembered for that pull.

"People say what doesn't break you makes you stronger and they're right. It was a life-changing experience. Liam Hayes, the former Meath footballer, said it at the time that being sent off in an All-Ireland final makes you think about things a lot more. That's certainly been the case."

Sunday Independent

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