Wednesday 13 December 2017

Not box office, but he's just the ticket for Villa

Richard's Dunne's stellar career deserves a medal, and he can put Paris behind him by lifting the League Cup today, says Dion Fanning

A TV crew were having a conversation at the Aston Villa training ground last Thursday. They scanned the itinerary for the club's media day and their eyes fell upon Richard Dunne's name. He wouldn't detain them, they concluded, as he wasn't "box office".

They weren't the first people to think like that about the man who will play in his first club final against Manchester United at Wembley today.

"Richard Dunne doesn't roll off the tongue in Beijing," the ludicrous Garry Cook, chief executive at Manchester City once said. Presumably he thought they would be shouting Joleon Lescott's name from the rooftops.

City's decision to let Dunne leave was one of the mistakes of the season. There may have been wise heads who advised that football still has less to do with box office than it does with traditional principles but they were knocked over in the gold-rush. Martin O'Neill has always been smarter than that and as he put together a new back-four last summer, Dunne was signed and immediately became a central part of it. Last week, Dunne helped Villa into the last eight of the FA Cup and today he has a chance of a first senior medal.

On Thursday, those who could resist the allure of Hollywood attractions Stephen Warnock and Stiliyan Petrov, listened as Dunne outlined his season. There was a time when Dunne was news if not box office. Today, he is neither of these things. Instead he is one of the outstanding centre-backs in the Premier League and one of the most forthright and intelligent talkers on the game.

There comes a time when a man's previous problems can seem to belong to a previous life and Dunne is no longer asked about the days when he looked intent on squandering the chance to be a Premier League footballer by behaving as most men in their early 20s do.

But Dunne was different. He was always seen as the most promising of his generation and when he was asked to remember his last final on Thursday, he talked about the Youth Cup with Everton. He could have also talked about the U18 European Championships in Cyprus when Brian Kerr's Ireland beat Germany in the final. Dunne and Robbie Keane are the players whose careers have endured from that team, even if Dunne's relationship with Kerr would deteriorate when he became senior manager.

Now Dunne is an influential player for Giovanni Trapattoni. He is a man who can be trusted and when City let him go, O'Neill was quick to grab a player with these qualities. Now all Dunne needs is a medal.

Even O'Neill feels a player needs to pick up some medals in his career. "Eventually, it probably is something a player needs or there will be something missing in a player's career. If he's had a fantastic time -- which Richard Dunne has had, he's been a great, great Premiership player for a long, long time -- but even he will sit back when he's about 40 and think, 'I won that, I won this', two or three medals rather than having had a comfortable existence.

"I think Richard Dunne would give up a few things to win those medals, I do honestly. There have been great, great players who have not won medals and if you ask every one of them I think they'd say it would have been great to clutch something. It would be lovely for him because he has been fantastic since he arrived here, fantastic, out of this world for us."

O'Neill still hesitates when told the fans would rather win a trophy than finish in fourth place because he and the players may feel differently and the fans would too if they glimpsed the Champions League. But there is no need to make a choice; football doesn't work like that. Beating Manchester United is what is on offer today. Victory can only aid Villa's attempts to get into the Champions League.

There is no need to bring Paris into it either. Dunne was asked if victory in the Carling Cup would be a balm after Ireland's failure to qualify for the World Cup.

His answer emphasised that this wasn't a consolation prize and also allowed for the idea footballers can function on more levels than simply a ledger of pros and cons. Credit: won a medal, cancelled out by debit: Henry's handball and nagging and unending feeling of injustice. Dunne will want to win today but it won't make him feel any better, or worse, about what happened in Paris.

"Yeah, it is one of those things, if I am not over it by now I will never be over it, it just happened."

He watched Martin Hansson mess up in Arsenal's Champions League game and he notes that it may be a good thing that he's going to South Africa because "maybe he might screw France up".

After the game in Paris, Eric Cantona said Dunne should have hit Henry when he sat down beside him. "He probably would have with his track record. It's one of those things; I have heard loads of people say you should have done this and you should have done that but at the end of it what is it going to do? Get me in trouble? It wouldn't have made me feel any better. In football it happens every weekend, someone feels cheated. That's what happens and you get on with it."

When Henry sat beside him, Dunne wasn't aware of the exact nature of Henry's handball. Did he think Henry had commiserated as a PR exercise? "I don't know because at the time I didn't know the extent of what had happened, I just thought he was being genuine. Then when you see what happened and his way of coming over -- he just looked a bit stupid."

In the summer, he may find himself thinking about it again, but there is more to be done with Villa first. "It has turned out really well, the season has been a good one, still got a chance in the FA Cup and still doing well in the league. Personally it has been enjoyable and if I could win a trophy in my first season that would be really good."

He hasn't got tickets for all of the 40 friends and family who are travelling over for today's game, hoping he can ensure a victory.

Manchester City fans will have several reasons for wanting Dunne to win. Seeing United lose might be a primary one but the affection they feel for their former captain will be a compelling attraction as well. The affection is mutual, despite Dunne's anger when he left, anger directed at Cook who, Dunne said with some authority, "doesn't understand football".

City's struggles at the back would confirm the error they made in letting Dunne go, a decision Dunne said at the time was Cook's, taken to help "balance the books" which remain pretty unbalanced. So do City, even as they try to compete with United.

Dunne has witnessed the dominance of United from an uncomfortable proximity. "It was strange because it is taken for granted that they are just going to win stuff every season. It's probably different now with Man City because they believe they have the opportunity to challenge them but then it was more about staying in the Premier League and Man Utd was growing into this massive world force who were dominating everything. Whoever you play for, the game against Manchester United is usually the biggest game of the season."

Villa will hope they have a few more this season but having beaten United at Old Trafford and drawn with them at home, they know what to do this afternoon.

They also have O'Neill, a manager who has brought the best from Dunne after the last period of instability at City.

"You get the feeling with him that you are going to be appreciated. I presume it is the same everywhere but if you do your job for him he will look after you. It is nice if you want a couple of days off he will give them to you, it is good just to be able to work with him and have a good conversation with him and be sensible about things and then to feel that you have been listened to."

O'Neill's methods have always been straightforward which is as uncommon in football as it is in any other field.

"He is quite simple in the way that he does things and keeps everything more or less plain and simple," says Dunne. "He manages players very well. We probably don't have the biggest squad going but over the last couple of years Villa have done well and hopefully this season we can take it one step further and win something."

Dunne will take his career, as well as Aston Villa's season, one step further if he helps his side win at Wembley today. Then he might be box office.

Aston Villa v Manchester Utd,

Sky Sports 1, BBC1 3.0

Sunday Independent

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