Dunne’s memorable resistance in Moscow a measure of the man
At 34, the distinguished centre back has called a halt to his international career with an absence of melodrama. As usual, his timing was perfect.
Richard Dunne: In the beginning, he must have looked an outside bet to become what he eventually did: a crowd favourite, brave to a fault and a player who carried the best of the qualities of the old era with him into the new. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
It is one of the great football images: Richard Dunne and Thierry Henry sitting together on the grass in Paris minutes after France and Ireland finished their enthralling and infamous World Cup play-off match.
The French man has played an instrumental role in ensuring Les Bleus will go to the World Cup in South Africa. Yes, he has cheated to do so, executing the most blatant and audacious use of the hand in any international football match since Diego Maradona punched the ball past Peter Shilton in 1986.
Replays shown around the globe prove that Henry doesn’t so much handle the ball as caress it onto his foot and then into the path of William Gallas, who heads the goal from point blank range. Dunne has played yet another magnificent match for Ireland and is shattered: socks rolled down, face deeply flushed and his ambition of playing in the greatest football tournament on earth finished now.
But anyone who didn’t know the backdrop to the story couldn’t possibly tell who has won and who has lost by looking at the faces of both men.
By that night in November 2009, Henry was one of the most recognisable and iconic strikers in the game, an absurdly gifted and easily the French-iest of French players who made the English league their home over the previous decade. And he sits down beside the big man from Tallaght and appears to be looking for some kind of absolution as they speak. Dunne leans over and pats him on the forearm but doesn’t say much.
He will explain afterwards that Henry told him that Ireland should have won and that, yes, he used his hand. “But I am not the referee,” he pointed out and Dunne understood that because his bread and butter as a defender was to try and snuff out artful geniuses like Henry who will use wit and speed and anything, anything they can do shake off defenders like Dunne.
Best everThere is a chance that if Henry had been asked to put names on all of the Irish players in Paris that night, he would have struggled to do so. But he knew Richard Dunne all right.
Almost two years after that Parisian fiasco, Dunne went on to have his best ever night in an Irish shirt in Moscow.
Even now, you can’t look at the footage of his clattering tackle on Yuri Zhirkov and at how hard he thumps his head of the running track without wincing. He finished the game with a replacement shirt and a No5 drawn in rough marker and for everyone watching, the performance of Dunne was like a game within the game. The result was of enormous consequence: the 0-0 draw was the crucial score in securing the play-off for Euro 2012 but within the 90ninety minutes, we watched Dunne play as if in a kind of trance, blocking shot after Russian shot and, it seemed, single-handedly repelling an entire team. It instantly ranked alongside the immortal Irish performances- Paul McGrath in Giants stadium, Roy Keane against Holland in Lansdowne Road – and made Dunne more difficult to categorise than ever.
Dunne was a reserve when he travelled with the Republic of Ireland on their pre-World Cup trip to Saipan. He was there for the sozzled media night and lived up to his reputation as a pro’ footballer who could burn the candle at both ends. He hadn’t changed much a year later when Kevin Keegan, out of patience with Dunne’s attitude to discipline and fitness, sent him home from Manchester City training at the beginning of the 2003 season when the Irishman turned up the worse for wear.
Dunne was an apprentice in the mid- 1990s, making his Everton debut in 1997 and his Irish debut in 2000; he learned his trade during an era when the notion that it was possible to play elite football while partying hard was okay. Dunne was a bon viveur and must have heard umpteen stories from the survivors of the Charlton era of how much fun could be had from Ireland and the football life in general. In his early twenties and hugely wealthy, he was determined to test the theory
That was why the second half of his career, when he transformed his body shape and became a model of consistency and shook off the fond if derogatory Honey Monster nickname and became a leader of men, was so fascinating to watch.
Dunne looked around and saw how quickly the demands and expectations were changing and responded in a way that few would have gambled on.
English virtuesAt first glance, he was emblematic of the traditional English virtues of a centre-back: dominant in the air, fearless, honest, bossy and perilously slow. Dunne made so many last-gasp tackles for club and country that it was always hard to decipher if his timing was out of this world or if he always managed to just get there in the nick of time. It was only when he began to perform so consistently for City and, during the Trapattoni era, for Ireland, that the more subtle qualities of his game became apparent: the excellent foot work and a lightning ability to read a game which made it appear as if he had some sort of magical habit of appearing in the right place at the right time.
Even it if he played for Manchester City just before Sheikh Mansour reimagined them as a mega club, there were occasions when Dunne was so good that it wasn’t too hard to imagine him a leader at a club with genuine title ambitions.
It was a shame that the Euro 2012 finals, which should have been his crowning glory as an international, turned into such a procession of defeat. The collapse against Croatia and Spain was a distant remove from the defiance and poise which Dunne and the Irish team had exhibited two years earlier in Paris.
Dunne’s life in an Irish shirt coincided with a bittersweet period, with campaigns which were more about what almost happened than what did. In the beginning, he must have looked an outside bet to become what he eventually did: a crowd favourite, brave to a fault and a player who carried the best of the qualities of the old era with him into the new. This week’s news that he has decided to call it quits just weeks before a new campaign begins is a low-key exit. An ovation at Lansdowne Road would have been fitting: he would have deserved that. But it wouldn’t have been Dunne: he never milked it.
It was typical that his best hour came not in front of the home crowd in Dublin but the faraway hostility of Moscow, when most people saw it on television. But that was three years ago. Dunne is 34 and figured that 14 years is long enough. So he has bowed out with a true centre-back’s absence of melodrama.
As usual, his timing was perfect.