Gunning for glory: Chesterfield head to the Bridge for daunting Chelsea clash

Dublin defender’s nomadic footballing life set for career highlight in FA Cup tie

Remember those giant-killing Saturday afternoons in the FA Cup third round and despair. Gav Gunning readily admits the whole romantic idea of Chesterfield plundering Stamford Bridge is buried in a bygone era.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” says Gunning, a veteran defender who has seen more darkness than bright lights in his nomadic footballing life. “When teams play the big teams now they just get mauled. These lads just chop everyone up with six or seven goals. Their squads are that big, even with eight changes they’ll still kill you.”

Undeterred, the Chesterfield skipper, who hails from Ballyogan in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, will embrace a career milestone that his younger self would have relished, and perhaps even expected after choosing Blackburn Rovers over the early days of Roman Abramovich's reign in south west London.

"Obviously it is a bit different from our usual games in the National League so yeah there is a bit of a buzz around. It's a massive game for the club financially so that's the main thing really to take from it."

There is a 'Christians to the lions' feel to the leading club in the fifth tier of English football visiting the Champions League holders. Take the ownership of each club, one fully embraced its north Derbyshire roots in 2020 by selling into a Community Trust while the other recently settled a libel claim against publishing house HarperCollins to recognise that the allegation in 'Putin's People' – a fascinating book by Catherine Belton – that Abramovich bought Chelsea at the Russian president's behest is not a statement of fact.

Fancy a cut off Romelu Lukaku?

“If he is playing, if not it will be somebody else like f**king [Timo] Werner!”

Gunning's opinion on Lukaku's poorly planned putsch against Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel carries the ring of a 30-year-old who was dropped into the choppy waters of the Premier League at age 15.

“When you get to that level it is not a big deal. They can do what they want them lads, innit? When you’re on 300 grand a week it is different, innit? He can literally do what he wants. Obviously Chelsea need him so they kissed and made up.”

Gunning has, remarkably, waded through the chaos of English football largely unchanged. Considering the state of his knees and recently smashed face, the continued ability to command a decent wage deserves recognition in itself.

Many moons ago he floated between Crumlin United and Kilmacud Crokes.

“Yeah and I even played sometimes when I came back home. I played for Crokes’ senior team when I was about 14.”

Any future Dubs as team-mates? "Em, yeah, probably. I played in a game with Ray Cosgrove who was about 15, 20 years older than me."

Back in 2006, why choose Blackburn over Chelsea?

“It just wasn’t for me. I went over a load of times and just didn’t enjoy it, so I was never going to go there. Obviously Conor [Clifford] went there.”

Clifford, Gunning’s team-mate at Crumlin, remains a cautionary tale of promised generational Irish talent crashing against the rocks of a Premier League club.

“In London especially lads just get swallowed up.”

Gunning, while conceding he was no model professional, still directs partial blame for his career path on the guidance of those who profit off teenage talent.

“That’s the problem. Even agents, there is not many of them out there who are just looking out for the lads. They want a few quid and that’s them.”

After five seasons and four loan spells away from Blackburn, in 2011 the rangy centre half reset at Dundee United. The Scottish years remain the high-water mark in a career dogged by surgeries and an unneeded reputation of being a loose cannon. Gunning has no interest in portraying himself in this way but there is a parody account on Twitter, dormant since 2017, that suggests an eccentric figure leads Chesterfield into battle this afternoon.

Facing Chelsea in the FA Cup also signifies a personal achievement so lacking in 17 club moves across 13 seasons.

“I’ve just been injured my whole career. Every second season I have missed nearly a whole season so I haven’t played nearly enough games as I should have unfortunately.

“I came down from Dundee United and signed for Birmingham in the Champ [in 2014] and f**ked my knee and didn’t play for 13 months.

“And then I just got forgotten about. Went from being sought after in the Champ to floating down the levels into non-league football.”

Gunning's time as a professional footballer appeared to be in freefall after a sending off when captain of Forest Green against Tranmere in the 2019 League Two playoff semi-final. Back-pedalling to retain possession, he was clipped by Jay Harris but as the camera moved off the tangle of legs both crowd and officials witnessed retaliation similar to David Beckham on Diego Simone at the 1998 World Cup. The referee marched over, touched his ear piece and pulled out the red card. Tranmere won 1-0 and ended up being promoted.

Gunning has done far worse for less punishment.

“If one fella gives a bad opinion of you in football you can end up f**ked, like. In the playoff against Tranmere I got sent off after about five minutes and I was blackballed with everyone.

“It killed me. There were a lot of clubs I could have gone to as I had had a good season but there were f**k-all offers after that.”

The slide into obscurity with Billericay Town and Solihull Moors was halted by James Rowe taking him to Gloucester City and eventually Chesterfield.

“He is the linchpin of what we are trying to do here,” said Rowe after securing Gunning to a two-year deal last November. “It is probably the best bit of business I have done here to tie him down for the future.”

This week he was fielding calls from Irish newspapers, such is the rarity of anyone featuring in top-flight games across the water (another potentially unmissable duel is 39-year-old Wes Hoolahan against Jeff Hendrick at St James' Park).

"Most of the Ireland team are Championship players now or even lower so even those lads won't get to do something like this."

Or they are at struggling Premier League clubs like Burnley and Norwich City where they might be better served by relegation and exposure to England's second tier.

“It is tough being Ireland manager nowadays as the pool of players is so small.”

Except at centre half where Dara O'Shea's ankle break was barely noticed due to the rise of Andrew Omobamidele and Nathan Collins.

"Ah Collins, is that Eamon's nephew? He is decent. Don't know the other fella. These days you get in a first team and you get caps for Ireland. I couldn't get a game for Ireland when I was in the Championship. I nearly got called in years ago but done my ankle. Then there was a period where lads were getting called in from Shamrock Rovers and that."

Did near selection come under Martin O’Neill or Giovanni Trapattoni?

“Trapattoni.”

This was a time when the scouting of lower leagues in England was not as rigorous as Stephen Kenny's regular missions.

Gunning hasn’t had much luck this season either, missing two months following a nasty facial injury.

“I had another op after smashing my face, broken nose and fractured orbital bone, so I’ve just come back from that.”

We mention Canelo Alverez’s right upper cut from last summer.

"Yeah, it's the same that happened to Billy Joe Saunders. I had a load of plates put into my face. A lad swung his foot and caught me and smashed the whole thing. I didn't know what I was doing, my nose was all across my face, I tried to play on. They didn't spot it at first as there was so much swelling but after getting a CT scan they seen the extent of the damage, it was mad.

“I have to wear a mask when I am playing, like Zorro. Been out for a couple of months, don’t feel at my best yet, but a couple of more games and I’ll be there.”

No better place to rediscover your mojo than Stamford Bridge in January.

“We are just going to enjoy it. I don’t know what team they will play but we can’t be going out there thinking we are going to slap Chelsea’s arses. You got to be realistic. Don’t let them take the piss but obviously it is going to be a tough game.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent

READ MORE