Euro 2012: Carrying the hopes of a nation
More than any other player, the country will look to Richard Dunne for inspiration, writes Dion Fanning
It's 12 years since Richard Dunne gave the first indication of his talent on an international stage. It's 12 years since those who had watched Dunne speed through the underage game felt that he was now unstoppable.
Dunne comes from a family of football men. His uncle Theo played for Shels and managed UCD. His cousin Tony Cousins played for Liverpool and another cousin Tommy Dunne is manager of Cork City. But Richard was the one they talked about. Richard was the one who they all knew was coming.
In September 2000, they thought he had arrived. Ireland played in the Amsterdam ArenA. Dunne started because of injuries and Phil Babb's roll on a garda's car bonnet on Harcourt Street. He was 20 years old. Those who had watched him all his life thought he would never go away.
The evening would be remembered for Roy Keane setting out clear demarcation lines with his customary brutal honesty. Ireland had been two goals up but ended up drawing 2-2. Keane thought there was nothing to celebrate. If Richard Dunne hadn't been there, there wouldn't have been.
Alan Kelly was in goal that night in Amsterdam. Twelve years later, he recalls one moment as if he's reading from notes. "It was the 93rd minute. I was ready for the volley, well I was walking to get the ball out of the net," Kelly says, as he remembers the moment the ball was floated forward from midfield and was dropping onto the toe of Patrick Kluivert who was poised to win the game. "This foot came from nowhere. Kluivert was going one way, this foot came the other way, hooked it away and he didn't just clear it, he brought it down. I applauded him. The last time I did that was Paul McGrath." Richard Dunne, Kelly said, saw nothing unusual in his actions. "Richard would do something like that and shrug his shoulders."
Kelly was there 11 years later in Moscow on the afternoon the nation came to understand this Irish team a little better and the day it elevated Dunne to the pantheon. But there were long years in between, barren years, including a World Cup in which he didn't play a minute and a four-year spell spanning the game against Holland at Lansdowne Road in 2001 to the game against France in 2005 when he didn't play a minute of competitive international football.
Maybe he once felt bitter about those times but not any more. "Every manager has their opinions. They'll pick players or won't pick players and you can't have any gripe about it. That's football, that's life, people will like you and people won't like you. There's no point in me worrying about it."
On Thursday evening, he sat down in the Grand Hotel in Sopot with a group of us gathered around. At times, it felt like we were sitting at his feet.
"I don't know if I'm philosophical about those times," he said. "I don't think about them. I can't remember not playing, you know what I mean? I don't know what it was like, whether I was happy or sulking, right now I'm enjoying it."
In those years, it seemed that Dunne's promise would never be fulfilled, that he would be another great that existed only in a parallel universe. He returned at the end of Brian Kerr's time but it was under the chaos of Staunton and the order of Trapattoni that he became essential.
During those years, whether he was in or out of the team, Ireland missed out on major tournaments. As a 22-year-old in Japan, he thought World Cups and European Championships would be part of the fabric of his life.
"In 2002, you think we've done well, maybe we'll do better in the Euros the next time or the next World Cup and it's never happened. As the older players, we now realise that this could be a one-off for us, as much as we hope it won't be and we're at the World Cup and the next Euros, we have to make sure we enjoy this and make the most of it."
Some might consider their international futures after the tournament but Dunne says that, "fingers crossed", he will return for the World Cup qualifiers in September.
Moscow was the moment when anything seemed possible for this Irish team. Dunne shrugs when asked if he will be defined by that game, he shrugs as Alan Kelly anticipated he would.
"It's strange because I cleared one off the line but everyone did the same things. I appreciate that people thought it was great but it's in the past and we're probably going to have the same sort of battles in games coming up over the next week. Every game has to be the same, the same performance and the same battling skills from the whole lot of us. One day everything goes right but the next it could all go wrong."
The whole game was "a blur", he says, so the skid across the running track isn't the cause of his vagueness. Kelly remembers it all, from drawing the number on his blank shirt so Dunne could get back on the field to Dunne's excursion forward.
"He ran with the ball, he got tackled and then he sprinted 30 yards back and got the ball, man, everything. It was a Kluivert moment."
If Moscow was the point where everything began to make sense for this team, it was the defeat to Russia in Dublin the year before that emphasised Dunne's leadership abilities. It was, he says now, just frustration, a reluctance to return to values that Ireland had abandoned, that led him to speak harshly immediately after the defeat. "We needed to stop accepting second best, stop being this team that nearly gets there."
Dunne came out and called for more responsibility when Ireland played. "It was more frustration really because after the France thing, we felt this was a big chance and the big chance was to win our home games. So to get beat -- we got hammered for an hour really -- we couldn't get the ball off them. To be 3-0 down, it was just frustration. We nearly got it back but at the end of the game you just think 'Ah'."
Dunne spoke and everyone listened. It was reported as an act of defiance, a call to Trapattoni to let the players play. It contained that demand but there was self-examination too. "It's one of those things. It's great because people ask you questions in the heat of the moment and you're just frustrated and you want to say stuff. We had to do it and to do it we needed to be stronger in those bigger games. I probably didn't get what I wanted to say out correctly, but it was just frustrating."
All these moments added to the sense of the personalities in the team that Trapattoni was lucky to be working with.
The manager demonstrated his wisdom last week when he gave the players a day off but he has been central to the spirit in the squad which every player mentions.
"I think he plays a massive part in it. He could completely shut us off and lock us in our rooms, but he is quite happy for us to have a laugh and enjoy ourselves. And in training, as long as we do the hard work, he sits back and enjoys it."
Like many of the players, he feels the fuss over a day off last week showed how well everything was going.
"We're scheduled to train twice a day the whole way through the tournament and that's where he's easy to speak to. The lads say 'Any chance of a day off?' and he's like 'Yeah, whatever, if that's what youse feel you need'. If we say we need to train three times tomorrow, he'll do it. He's there to manage us and one of the big things of managing us is making sure we're happy and relaxed."
Dunne jokes that footballers "want to complain about something" but said everyone benefited from the day's rest. "It's the same as what we do at club level, we have a Wednesday off and we usually have the Sunday off after the game, that's the way it is. We play every week in England, we do the same thing, so for us to train for 20-odd days in a row, it doesn't make sense. We need time off, whether it's sitting around the hotel, or going to a Jacuzzi or something, it's just a day off."
The players have found Sopot the perfect place to relax, away from the madness of Poznan, even if as the Croatian game came closer, they didn't need the presence of fans to remind them what was coming.
"We're desperate to do well, so nerves are going to be there. It's like anything else, when you want something so badly, you're going to be nervous about trying to get it."
Yet they all know what they have to do. Trapattoni named the team a week ago but if he changed it, Dunne says it would make no difference -- every player in the squad knows what's expected of him.
Dunne's presence makes the country feel better. He broke his clavicle in February but he doesn't feel the time off did him good or that he is lacking fitness. He doesn't look for comfort where it isn't or search for excuses. The manager mentions Greece in 2004 to the press but Dunne says he has never brought it up with the players, yet everything else they say hints at their ambition.
"Spain are probably better than anyone but why would we even think about playing them without believing we can beat them? We honestly feel we can do as well as anyone else."
First there is Croatia. It is a game Slaven Bilic, who said he "loved" Richard Dunne last week, believes gives Croatia their best chance of victory. Dunne feels Ireland can win, he always feels Ireland can win.
"It's not 'This is the game we feel we can win'. This is the first one so if you can get off to the best start, if we can go and win it, whatever it takes, we'll do it. If they come and attack us maybe that might work into our hands."
Any Croatian attack will have to deal with Richard Dunne. Since Moscow, he has been burdened by comparisons with Paul McGrath and there may be more at the end of the tournament.
"They're both iconic," Kelly says of McGrath and Dunne. Everyone, Kelly says, feels better when Dunne is playing. If he performs like he did in Moscow, there will be a shrug of his shoulders and a comment that he was just doing his job.
Richard Dunne will be determined Ireland don't accept second best tonight. If he succeeds, the rest of the country will do a lot more than shrug.
Sunday Indo Sport