Saturday 18 November 2017

Dunne follows path of master McGrath

James Lawton

James Lawton

As he sat disconsolately a few months ago on the field of the Stade de France and Thierry Henry so sheepishly joined him in what will probably go down as one of the emptiest acts of atonement in the history of football, Richard Dunne would have been inhuman had he had not reflected on all the degrees of bitterness that can go into the status of a loser.

Yet as Dunne operated at the heart of another hugely important match at Villa Park this week, when Aston Villa sought to maintain their foothold among the elite of the Premier League, he had reason to draw comfort from another old truth of the game.

It is the one which states that the very best professionals have a tendency to grow strong at the broken places.

Dunne, of course, has not always been such a strong candidate for membership of such a company. But, if he had his disciplinary problems at Manchester City under Kevin Keegan; if his fitness levels were not always a matter for celebration in the manager's office, and if, indeed, he was finally rejected by that club he served so well for most of a turbulent decade, who can say that his claims have not been enhanced with the respect offered to him under the leadership of Villa's Martin O'Neill?


Before the United game, O'Neill handed Dunne his latest accolade, saying: "Richard had a fine career at Manchester City and I don't think you can be at a club for nine years and not have affection for it. Maybe we were lucky to get him."

No one can dispute the fact that Dunne has emerged as one of the summer's best transfer coups -- he was half the price of Thomas Vermaelen, the Arsenal signing from Ajax, who was widely touted as the signing of the year before recent defensive difficulties at the Emirates.

But then if Villa were fortunate, they have also been the beneficiaries of some crass City thinking. The failure was in properly understanding the value they let slip away when granting Villa their knock-down price for Dunne after deciding to invest so extravagantly in Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott.

Certainly it would be interesting to hear the candid view of City's new manager Roberto Mancini on the relative merits of the trio as City struggle to achieve anything like the kind of defensive certainties which allow Italian football coaches to sleep easily at night.

While Toure and Lescott have struggled to strike up anything like a convincing union, Dunne went into Wednesday night's game justifying one of the warmer testimonials he received at Eastlands before City decided he was surplus to needs.

Young Micah Richards, who until not so long ago was considered to be a key part of England's defence going into the World Cup summer said: "Ever since I came to City Richard has been quality. I play with him week in and week out and you have to believe he is one of the best. I've played with John Terry and Rio Ferdinand and Richard is right up there with them."

Dunne is a classic example of player who can muster enough character to fight his problems on the field -- but not the one that turned so many heads at City when they were suddenly deluged with the Middle Eastern money which left them rejoicing in the title of world's richest club.

The Dubliner might have become a bedrock of defensive security, but he was not, and never would be, glamorous enough for the tastes of, among others, chief executive Gary Cooke who used the player's name, quite gratuitously in defining the club's new recruitment priorities.

The embarrassing initiatives which left Robinho a fabulously rewarded misfit, and led to the embarrassing denouement of the £100m lunge for Kaka, apparently represented City's future ... and players of Dunne's ilk, perhaps the past.

Here, anyway, was a Cooke strategy statement not guaranteed to make Dunne feel especially proud of his progress away from earlier difficulties. "China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we're going to tell them that City is their content," Cooke said at the time. "We need a superstar to get through that door. Richard Dunne doesn't roll of the tongue in Beijing."

Maybe not, but a rather better mention has been consistently provided by opposing strikers discomforted by both the weight and the acumen of the attention they have received from the man from Tallaght.

On Wednesday there were no guarantees going in against a United side so brilliantly revived by the impressive form of Wayne Rooney, but for O'Neill there was the kind of certainty that was enjoyed by Ireland's Giovanni Trapattoni in the World Cup qualifying campaign that ended so cruelly in Paris.

It was of the application of a defender hewn in the classic mould of all those beloved of those managers who know that the foundation of any kind of success is laid in defence.

Dunne, plainly, was hurt deeply by the nature of his departure from City. But then, just as his compatriot Paul McGrath proved when he was sent away from Manchester to Villa to eke out what was left of a blemished career, sometimes footballers can become particularly strong at the broken places.

Banished by United, McGrath rode along on his damaged knees and produced performances which announced a player of undisputed world class. Dunne, in the company of defenders like Carlos Cuellar, Stephen Warnock and James Collins, also anxious to establish their sturdy credentials at the highest level of the game, has maybe not always displayed the polish of McGrath, but his resolution, his understanding of the most vital demands of his job, have been, in their own way, quite as outstanding.

It was, indeed, a desperate little cameo out in the middle of the Stade de France with Henry contemplating the price of his trip to the World Cup finals and Dunne soaking up the pain of another disappointment. Yet, sometimes the margins between winning and losing can be both fine and complicated.

Richard Dunne's triumph, though, could scarcely be more transparent. After some discouragement along the way, he remains resolutely committed to producing the best of himself. It wasn't always so, but now that it is, there is no easier job than recognising the scale of his victory.

Irish Independent

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