Tuesday 23 January 2018

Lionheart at centre of it all

Eamonn Sweeney

As a kid, I was huge fan of a story in Tiger comic entitled Billy's Boots. The hero was a young lad named Billy Dane who played football in an old pair of boots which had once belonged to a great player named Dead Shot Keen.

These boots seemed to possess magical powers and would bring Billy into positions which at first seemed to make no sense -- "Dead Shot's boots are dragging me out to the wing" -- but then proved to be exactly right -- "I can lob the goalie from here, hurray."

It was an incident in the 33rd minute of Ireland's match against Russia on Tuesday which brought the old comic strip back to my mind.

When Yuri Zhirkov cut in from the left wing and cut the ball into the path of Igor Semshov who slipped past Darren O'Dea's last-ditch tackle and shot from ten yards out anyone who'd had the Dynamo Moscow striker as first goalscorer must have been counting their winnings. Yet as the ball sped towards the corner of the net Richard Dunne was there and somehow deflected it round the post with his heel while facing the wrong way.

As a miracle save, it was up with Gordon Banks' from Pele in 1970 and it happened because Dunne had set off for the goalline before Semshov even took a shot. Like Billy Dane he'd reaped the reward of a supernatural act of anticipation, the difference being that Richard Dunne had to rely on his own intuition rather than that furnished by a magic pair of boots.

The comic book parallel seems apposite because Dunne's magnificent performance in Moscow had an astonishing quality about it, as though it had been scripted by some pulp artist of genius with no fear of the unlikely. How about that moment where the big man, apparently fed up of the resemblance the match bore to the battle of Rorke's Drift, hurtled out of defence, beating one man and then another as he powered over the half-way line, for a second seeming as though he might go all the way to the other box?

Finally dispossessed and apparently caught out of position, the Tallaght man thundered back and produced a superb sliding tackle to knock the ball away from Andrey Arshavin as the Russian star player sought to capitalise on his absence. It had to be the Russian star player who got robbed because that's what happens in Roy of the Rovers and Richard Dunne was having a Roy of the Rovers night.

Then there was the superb tackle on the left wing with Dunne going full stretch to halt the flying Zhirkov and send both men tumbling across the running track beside the pitch. Tartan is one of the most unforgiving surfaces you can fall on so it's not surprising that our hero ended up looking like the man who gets to test the Bic razors at the factory. But the four stitches he received didn't halt his gallop.

And neither did his having to end the game wearing a jersey, to replace his blood-stained one, which had the number five drawn on with a marker. With a marker. Even Roy of the Rovers would have blanched at that one. Stitched, plastered, markered, pressured, there was nothing Richard Dunne couldn't handle.

German ref Felix Brych was wrong to book him for that challenge on Zhirkov but it's just as well he did. Because that yellow card earns Dunne a suspension which rules him out of our next game against Andorra, thus ensuring he won't pick up a yellow there and miss our final game against Armenia, the one where everything will be at stake. That's how Ireland's luck is running at the moment. Even the injustices perpetrated against us work in our favour.

It was good to hear Paul McGrath describing Dunne's tour de force as the greatest ever performance by an Irish centre-back. Good because it's always nice to hear from Paul McGrath and because the only other performance of this quality was the one he himself gave against Italy in the 1994 World Cup. But the performances were very different because they came from two very different players.

McGrath was an extraordinary natural talent, a player of huge athleticism, pace and skill who was such a good all-round footballer he functioned very well as an international midfielder and would have been a decent striker at the top level. You can't imagine Richard Dunne playing in the centre of midfield for Ireland. Not on his best day. You can't imagine him as anything other than a centre-back. He is the embodiment of that old-fashioned word for his position, a 'stopper'. He is not the first cousin of quick and at times he turns with all the grace of a JCB trying to execute a three-point manoeuvre on a boreen. And it doesn't matter. At club level he is sometimes caught out by nippy opponents, but not often. At international level it never happens.

His weapons are those of a man who has had to compensate for a lack of natural advantages by hard work and diligence. Foremost among his qualities is that Dead Shot Keen reading of the game, the defensive instinct which directed him back towards the right spot on the goalline when he didn't even know which corner Semshov was going to shoot for. There is his total lack of fear, noteworthy even for a man who plays in a position whose practitioners regularly put their head where others would quail to chance their feet. And there is that huge desire and dedication to the cause of Ireland which turns a very good club player into an absolutely outstanding international, one of the best we've ever had.

Physiognomy as a scientific discipline may have gone the way of eugenics and spiritualism but sometimes it seems as though you can detect that desire and dedication from Richard Dunne's head, a marvellous monumental thing Rodin might have hewn from a marble block. The forehead is lined from the worries overcome, the eyes burn with the intensity he can't damp down. After the match he always looks harrowed, a spent man who has left everything out on the pitch.

The sceptics can talk about how lucky Ireland were in Moscow. But this was our sixth clean sheet in a row and we remain undefeated away from home in the Trapattoni era. No team is that lucky. Those achievements require the solidest of foundations and nobody, but nobody, in international football is solider than Richard Dunne, a player who gives his all for the Irish fans.

Sadly, the favour isn't returned. The Jackass Chorus who booed Ireland after the draw with Slovakia might ponder the fact that they were booing Richard Dunne and that those jeers would still have been ringing in his ears as he prepared to do battle in Moscow. Tipperary were disappointing against Kilkenny this day last week but their fans never thought of booing them.

So what's the story? Why is it only Richard Dunne, Shay Given and their team-mates who have to put up with this nonsense? Do the fans of the national soccer team simply care more than the followers of hurling and rugby, Gaelic football and the League of Ireland? Or is there perhaps simply a greater concentration of assholes among, 'The Best Supporters In The World'?

You tell me.


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