Sport Soccer

Wednesday 21 February 2018


Joe Dunne will never be a prisoner of fear or tradition, as Dion Fanning discovers

Manager Joe Dunne of Colchester United during a pre season friendly match
Manager Joe Dunne of Colchester United during a pre season friendly match

Dion Fanning

You probably don't know Joe Dunne and that's ok with Joe Dunne. Joe Dunne was Everyman if Everyman left for England at 15 to become a footballer and swore he was never going back. Joe Dunne never played football at the highest level. Joe Dunne never played for his country and his playing career ended before he was 30. And he never went back.

When Joe Dunne signed for Gillingham, he had never heard of the place and had to find it on a map. They had an Irish manager and that was enough. He went over for a week's trial. He stayed for two weeks and signed at 15 without telling his mother.

He went to England at the same time as his friend, Mark Kinsella. Others left Dublin before them and they all came back. Kinsella played for Home Farm. Joe had been playing against him when he was ten and, in that way he always had, he was able to step back and spot a footballer.

Kinsella went to Colchester United when other players in Dublin were going to Liverpool and Manchester United. When Kinsella and Dunne came back to Dublin, they'd go out. "Yeah I'm over in England, playing with United," Kinsella would tell people. Then there'd be a beat. "Colchester United."

Gillingham was Gillingham, there was no getting away from that and Joe Dunne never regretted it. He married the former chairman's daughter and in his early 20s he moved to Colchester United and played briefly with Kinsella.

Kinsella went on to play in the Premier League but Dunne stayed at Colchester where he became a favourite because of his intensity. They knew what they would get with Joe Dunne – "I was a six or a seven every week" – and at the old Layer Road they loved what they were getting.

In his late 20s, his hip started to bother him and then it became more troublesome. He would have to retire at 29. On his deathbed, Henry James said, "Here it comes, the big thing". For a sportsman, retirement is this big thing but Joe Dunne didn't see it that way. He believed in the afterlife. Playing wasn't the thing. Coaching was his thing, changing people's lives and making them better players was what he wanted to do.

There are some things that aren't ok with Joe Dunne. Joe Dunne is now manager of Colchester United and Mark Kinsella is his assistant and they want to make things better.

Joe Dunne would have been a teacher if he wasn't a footballer. This is what he wants to do and there is a list of things he wants to change.

"I've been told I can't do this, can't do that. People are very, very comfortable telling people what they can't do. You're mainly told what you can't do. I believe every individual has creativity at some stage until somebody tells you, 'Don't do that' and that's it. If somebody tells you not to do something, you lose confidence. I try to get my players to express themselves as well as they can."

They tell Joe Dunne what he can't do in League One and what he can't do with Colchester United. Right now, things look good. Colchester have won four of their last six matches but Dunne knows this club and knows that anything can happen. Earlier in the season, with a squad weakened by injuries, they went 12 games without a win.

The chairman of Colchester United has done a lot for the club. He wants what Joe Dunne wants and they both have an idea of what the club would look like: driven by players produced from the Academy who are technically proficient and play attractive football that wins matches. Yet the managerial slums are full of coaches who had the backing of the board.

"In the bubble that we're in, results are the main thing. But there's got to be more than that. If you're winning every game with no quality, it has to go deeper than that – what is the individual getting from it because one day it's all going to stop?"

When he was a coach, Dunne went to Anderlecht and Ajax to study their academies. Everything he thought about football changed on that trip. "Ajax changed me," he said.

It wasn't simply that he sat in the canteen at the Ajax Academy drinking a beer with Frank de Boer. De Boer was impressive but he wondered what would be said if you drank a beer at an English club. The assumption would be that you had ten more planned for the night. In Ajax, it was a small demonstration of the trust they had.

"Ajax changed my focus and mindset on everything, how they bring out the best in kids and I thought, 'Why can't that happen over here?'

"My biggest question is why. Why can't we do it? There is no reason. There is absolutely no reason why this country or Ireland or anybody else can't do the same. It just takes bollox. It takes a massive amount of bollox to say, 'Right, this is what we're going to do'. If Belgium can do it, France can do it, Spain can do it, Germany did it, what makes us any different? Why can't we do it? Holland did it."

He has read all the books and he is always looking for new ideas. He read Inverting the Pyramid and marvelled that the more you dig, the more you find out that nearly all the new ideas are old ideas. Then Swindon beat them playing what somebody joked was a 10-0-0 formation and he was at the training ground on the Sunday morning trying to figure it out.

The training ground has everything a manager could want. It was built by Robbie Cowling, a local multi-millionaire, the chairman who saw something in Dunne, who stuck with him when they lost nine matches in a row last season. Joe Dunne had been full-time manager for 21 matches when that run ended but he had done everything at Colchester United. He'd managed the youth team, coached the first team and had been assistant and caretaker. When he got the job, some fans grumbled that he was the cheap option but they can't have been listening when he talked of his ambitions.

Dunne says his life has been about swimming against the tide. There is ambition in Colchester but it still looks like an unlikely place for the ambitious to wash up.

In 2008, Colchester United left Layer Road, their creaking and intimate old ground, and moved to a new stadium on the edge of town. The year they arrived, Colchester were relegated from the Championship and they have stayed in League One since.

The ground can hold 10,000 but this year their average attendance is 3,814, the fourth lowest in the division.

"I think they will come eventually," Dunne says. "It's like the old Field of Dreams, isn't it? Build it and they will come."

The Field of Dreams

January 11, 2014

"We're playing triangles. We're playing fucking triangles." The man in the main stand at the Weston Homes Community Stadium is laughing. Today this is the Field of Dreams and Colchester United are playing fantasy football.

A romantic would struggle to believe this is the place for him. The Weston Homes Community Stadium is perched beside the A12, the dual carriageway that takes you into Colchester and gets you out of Colchester.

They're at home to Joe Dunne's old club Gillingham who have brought nearly 1,000 fans with them on the hour-long journey from Kent. "Your ground's too big for you," the Gillingham fans sing but they don't have much else to sing out about.

In the first half, neither side does. The pitch is soggy and the standard low. Colchester's attempts to play it out from the back are undone by uncertainty, the nagging doubt that Dunne has talked about, the sense that when you're in League One – the bottom half of League One – you shouldn't be trying to play football.

Dunne prowls along the touchline. Peter Taylor, the man who managed England briefly, is in the other dugout, an example of how you can rise in management and how, just as swiftly, none of it can matter.

Dunne's instructions are clear. "Use the ball, use the ball," he says. Colchester try to do that. At left-back, Luke Garbutt, on loan from Everton, is dominating while Sanchez Watt – signed from Arsenal – is showing why he was signed by Arsenal. On his first day as Colchester manager, Dunne took Watt on loan. Dunne tries to take days off but there is always a match he thinks he'd like to see and, more importantly, a player he is worried he might miss.

Five minutes into the second half, Watt scores. Colchester relax a bit and soon they are passing in little triangles, much to the amazement of the man in the stand. But they keep missing chances and on the touchline, Dunne continues to prowl.

In the final few minutes, Colchester get a second. Clinton Morrison arrived at the club two years ago and immediately had everybody on his side. At training, he lightens the mood and on the pitch, Dunne and Kinsella marvel at his endless work rate. Today he gets his second goal of the season and Dunne leaps in the air. Freddie Sears – once of West Ham, once of limitless potential – scores the third.

Dunne walks straight into the press conference and asks the attendance. The figure appears to come as a blow to him, even if the result and, more importantly, the performance are everything he wants from this side if he didn't always want more.

Later in the windowless room where Colchester entertain the opposition management team, Taylor is waiting when Dunne arrives, wearing a frown, looking like he's trying to solve the next problem. "Cheer up, son," Taylor says.

Dunne had some friends from Gillingham at the game and they recall his ferocity as a player. Dunne, meanwhile, stands in the corner with Taylor, talking through the game, talking through the season. Small talk is not his thing.

The following Tuesday at Colchester's training ground, Dunne and Kinsella are changing plans. The training facilities are exceptional but the constant rain has made the pitches unplayable. Today they'll train on the small astroturf pitches at the stadium – "the cages".

Colchester used to train wherever they could so this is progress. When he was youth team coach, Dunne would help preparation for training. "I used to have to get my players to do a sweep of the pitch, dogshit, needles, glass. You know? Then say to the gaffer, 'It's alright now, you can train on it'."

There are still problems. Due to planning laws, the club can't use the training ground on Wednesdays. There is an active and vigilant residents' association which doesn't like to see the training ground bustling too often and has been known to complain about bad language, a problem for professional footballers.

The training is swift and intense. Dunne watches them closely as they warm up looking like a racehorse trainer observing his horse on the gallops and then leaves the session to Kinsella and his coaches.

There's an under 21 game in Ipswich he wouldn't mind seeing and there's a group of players training away from the main session. He'd like to have a look at them before he heads to Milton Keynes to watch MK Dons play Wigan where there's a player he likes.

There is always another game. If he heads north to watch a match, he might watch four before he gets home again. He's trying to relax a bit. He knows what management can do to a man's health and he seems pretty persuasive on the subject of switching off. "The problem is if there's a game on, I'll find it."

* * * * *

Joe Dunne's father died when he was 13 and he became "the man of the house". His father had been ill for some time but his death had a "profound effect". Dunne was alone at home with his mother. His story is a familiar one for anyone who has watched an adolescent survive the death of a parent. From the tragedy, a kind of beauty emerges in the resilience. Nobody should have to grow up that quickly but it is a remarkable thing to witness when they do. "I grew up having to make a lot of decisions for myself, I had nobody to turn to."

School became an important thing and on rare trips home – "if I go back it's a day at Christmas just to give out the cards with money in it; I'm like Santa Claus on the bleedin' Ryanair flight" – he'll call in. He grew up in Inchicore with good neighbours at what he thinks was the end of an era.

"I came over in '89, went back for a few weeks in '89 and when I went back in '90 things started to change. We never saw the Celtic Tiger. You'd go back after a few years and think, 'What is that? Where's that building come from?'"

Teachers provided guidance but the thing he wanted to do was to get away, to make it in football. "I pretty much left and that was it."

He was signed by Keith Burkinshaw but Damien Richardson was manager when he arrived and he has stayed close to him throughout his career. Dunne wanted to make it as a player but there was always something else.

"When I came to Gillingham I was coaching kids in the car park. Always held a passion for me. I've always watched games. I used to go into London to watch games. It's funny because I think I would have been a teacher if I hadn't been a footballer."

His playing career was a means of acquiring knowledge and learning about the game.

"The way I've tried to manage is to avoid all the things I didn't like as a player. I'm always honest, up front. I tell the players the truth, I don't lie. Maybe that's why people don't come and knock on my door because I'll tell them what they don't want to hear. I don't like being lied to. I don't like being made a fool of, I don't like having the wool pulled over my eyes. I never liked that as a player."

During the years of acquiring knowledge, he saw how others did it. They might have been in a majority as they found a method of making their way in the game.

"Bullshitters. The game's full of bullshitters. I've got no time for bullshitters. Never had as a player. Mark will tell you, I'm straight with my staff. There are a lot of people in the game who will tell you a certain way of playing gets you wins and this is it. It's proven, it's proven, it's proven, it's proven. Ok, fine. I have no problem with that. What I think is that I'm in a minority of teams who are trying to play attractive football with a purpose. What they get caught up in is, 'Oh they're dreamers. It's not the right way to play football. The way is to get results'. I'm hearing it every day."

He believes there is another way, a way of escaping the past. "We get bogged down in tradition. Tradition, tradition, tradition. This is how we do it, this is how we're supposed to do it. Linear. Everything is linear. Are we really going to stay on one line or are we going to come off every now and again?"

He remembers his kids coming home from school with drawings and how he, like any parent, told them it was the best drawing he'd ever seen as he proudly stuck it on the fridge.

"Someday someone's going to look over their shoulder and say, 'Shit, that's not very good'. It might be someone sitting next to you in the class and all of a sudden the confidence goes, the creativity gets blocked. They then start to fear what other people will think. The best artists, the best actors, the best musicians, they're off their rocker. The best songwriters, they live on that edge. They don't care what people think, they do what they think is right. It can get you into a lot of trouble."

The game can swallow you up, he says, but his approach isn't about players going out and having a good time. He wants his players to achieve something.

"Everything is status these days. How many hits you get on your Facebook? How many Twitter followers have you got? What car you driving? What clothes have you got? What watch have you got? Without even kicking a ball in the first team. You want to be a footballer? Play two hundred, three hundred games. Win medals. Go as high as you can."

The distractions are everywhere. Inside the Colchester training ground, there are several posters for Sporting Chance with the slogan "Addicted to football-or something else?". Others caution against more modern problems. "Once you put a picture online, you lose control of it."

Dunne knows he will often be working with players who had potential but that hadn't been enough. He looks at players at big clubs and wonders what they did with some of them. Maybe they didn't educate them sometimes because they know that if one doesn't make it, another probably will.

Dunne doesn't have that luxury. On Tuesday afternoon, he heads briefly to his office which is a small room with a desk, a flipboard and a window looking into the corridor. "I don't spend much time here," he adds unnecessarily. He is everywhere else as he searches for success.

He wants his teams to play without asking, 'What if?' "I think sport is in the head. That inner demon that says you can't do this takes over you. Destroys people, fear. Absolutely destroys people."

So he will try to ignore the voices that tell him he can't do it, that long-ball, 4-4-2 is the only way to survive in England's third division. "If we were to go back to front, to go long, we might as well throw all our academy kids out the door."

Last year, he might have listened to too many people as he tried to make the most of the opportunity. He realised pretty quickly that if he wanted to succeed, he would have to change and be himself.

Last weekend, Dunne and Kinsella went to Carlisle where their old friend Graham Kavanagh is manager. Colchester won 4-2 and they have Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday. Dunne watched them yesterday at Swindon, having got to the Brentford game the night before and headed down to watch Canvey Island a few days before. "It's been a quiet week."

The survival rate for managers wouldn't encourage anybody and Dunne knows that managers who are sacked find it hard to get back. In three years, his plans may sound foolish or they could be a mission statement. As a player, he knew his limitations. He has always felt differently about management.

Sometimes he wakes up at 3.30 working out ideas, waiting until it's time to head to the training ground.

"I have a massive, burning ambition to be successful here and whatever happens after that I feel confident in my ability to make people better at whatever level that is. The one thing for sure is I won't be in this job forever because that's the nature of the beast. Whether it's me moving on or somebody else coming in but what I feel is that I've got the ability to make people better. Ambition? You have to have ambition. You've got to have drive. I'm realistic about it because there's enough on my plate at the moment so wherever it takes me, it takes me."

You had probably never heard of Joe Dunne and Joe Dunne is ok with that. For now.

Irish Independent

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