Eamon Dunphy: From journeyman to journalism: how a hero of The Den found his voice

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Eamon Dunphy's enemies insist he is a bitter, twisted little man who habitually takes a contrary stance and hates anyone to be successful. The reason, they assert, is that he never made it at Manchester United.

Eamon Dunphy's enemies insist he is a bitter, twisted little man who habitually takes a contrary stance and hates anyone to be successful. The reason, they assert, is that he never made it at Manchester United.

But when Dunphy wakes in an anxious sweat, it is not about leaving Old Trafford without a League game to his name. It does not concern being sued over one of his strident newspaper columns, his TV show being pulled prematurely, Jack Charlton wanting to punch his lights out or even how 50 years of smoking might be affecting his body. His nightmare, literally, is being dropped by Millwall.

"If I have a bad dream, it's always about being left out of the side and standing outside the manager's office at the old Den," he says as we meet in Dublin on the eve of the FA Cup final between the two clubs which did most to shape the man to whom it is said no one in Ireland is indifferent. "My partner, Jane, once asked what my disturbed sleep was all about. I explained and she said: 'Who the hell is Benny Fenton?'."

As those of a certain vintage among Millwall's following in Cardiff today could tell her, Fenton was in charge of the south London club three decades ago when Dunphy played in midfield. He has passed on, but a player's insecurity is eternal. "My nightmares show how deeply rooted in your marrow it is," Dunphy reflects.

"Did you see Paul Scholes' face when [Sir Alex] Ferguson substituted him after 35 minutes against Chelsea to save him being sent off? Ferguson did the rational thing, but what Scholes felt was as powerful as it was irrational. If you're not in the team, you do not exist."

Dunphy has carved out rather more than an existence since he traded the training ground for the typewriter (he eschews the laptop computer and has no mobile phone). While still a player he had written Only A Game?, a ground-breaking diary of the season he left Millwall. He has since penned books about U2 and Sir Matt Busby as well as ghosting Roy Keane's controversial autobiography. As a broadcaster he talks with equal authority, or lack of it depending on your view, about everything from Shamrock Rovers to the Middle East.

Dunphy's grounding was not university but The Den and the other schools of hard knocks where his self-professed "journeyman" ability took him. "I thought football was very hard. I wasn't strong or athletic enough. The Rothmans Yearbook showed me as 9st 4lb. The next lightest anywhere was a stone heavier. It was partly because I'd been smoking since I was eight, partly my metabolism.

"I was also a bit of a loner who didn't fit easily into the whole 'club' ethos. But football was a huge preparation for the struggles of journalism. Survival was the objective! After that, nothing will ever faze me."

In August he turns 59. He was a 15-year-old trialist when he first entered Old Trafford. "It was heavy with atmosphere; the Munich disaster had changed United from a club into a cult. Busby watched 45 minutes of the match that changed my life. I did OK and they offered me a contract. They had 45 pros and creamed off the prodigies from all over Britain and Ireland. I was a timid teenager from Dublin's Northside. It was a mind-blowing experience."

A year behind him was another quiet young Irishman. George Best was regarded as a "car-park player" who could not translate his talent on to even the youth-team stage. Then Busby had "a vision", as Dunphy terms it, and thrust the Belfast boy in against West Bromwich Albion. The rest is his story. "George had kept to himself. Suddenly he was out of the bowling alley and the chip shop with us. He was The Man."

When Best was still shy, Dunphy took him to the Plaza in Manchester one Saturday night. "I was going out with my landlady's daughter and I asked if she minded if I brought this kid along. She grudgingly agreed. All night I begged her to dance with him. Finally she went: 'Just once and that's it'. When the music stopped she said: 'Happy now?'

"A few years later I saw her and said: 'Remember that lad?' We laughed about it and she said: 'You couldn't get him for me now, could you?' He was the most desirable man in England by then."

Dunphy's career in the company of Best, Law and Barry Fry - one of the boy wonders - peaked as 12th man in the pre-substitute era (his abiding memory is of Martin Edwards, later chief executive, riding on United's bus as a short-trousered schoolboy). "I wasn't going to make it. I wasn't living like a footballer should. I was down at Jimmy Savile's club, watching the Beatles and Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders."

In 1964, United's programme likened him to Denis Law for "his natural ability, fair hair, lean build and willingness to tackle hard". The last quality went undetected by most observers and his other attributes were insufficient to sway Busby. He sold him to York for £4,000, despite Birmingham offering twice as much.

"Busby didn't want anyone - even me! - coming back to haunt him," Dunphy says. "He let John Giles join Leeds because they were in the Second Division and he thought they were no threat. Big mistake."

Strange Kind of Glory was his analysis of Busby's paternalistic style. "I believe he was the greatest figure in the game's history. He changed football forever. Not because he won things, but because he defined the role of manager as we know it. He took English football into Europe. He brought in youth and made it work."

After four months at York, Dunphy moved to Millwall. "First time I went to Cold Blow Lane I thought: 'Jesus, what have I done?' It wasn't fashionable London, like Fulham or Chelsea. But the noise there was incredible. Northern clubs thought these southern lads had no bottle, yet there was a do-or-die mentality and aggression running through the place. We went 50-odd home games unbeaten. We used to steam into teams. Not me personally, of course!"

Millwall's website, incidentally, has a "Hall of Fame" wherein Dunphy, still the Lions' most-capped player, is immortalised as a "ball-playing midfielder who disliked getting stuck in". He roars with laughter. "Pretty good analysis! When I went back after they won promotion [in 1988] and we were introduced on the pitch, people shouted: 'Where's yer 'andbag, Dunphy?' I loved that."

No one cast such aspersions on Harry Cripps, whose presence would have raised the Millennium Stadium roof had he lived. He embodied the Millwall spirit, "the archetypal fan in a jersey," said Dunphy. "Harry was a big-hearted, strong-looking guy and the sight of him scared people. His reputation was as a kicker but he was too gentle for that. He was a loveable rogue. My first morning there he sold me an LP for a quid. Next day I saw it in the shops for 12/6d (62 1/ 2p). But you couldn't take offence."

Dunphy earned £35 a week and lived in a club house. You will not, however, hear him carping about millionaire players. That is because he remembers how his generation tugged forelocks to managers, chairmen and even journalists. "I hated all that deference; players being grateful for their lot. Credit to Jimmy Hill when he led the players' union and ended the maximum wage in 1961. He led footballers out of slavery.

"I love the fact that people today earn big money. You can feel the resentment in the media, but Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane - they're fantastic. Give 'em the money!"

He and Keane are kindred spirits as well as collaborators. They shared a critique of Mick McCarthy, who, as the Republic's manager, sent the United captain home from Japan before the 2002 World Cup. They argued that McCarthy fostered the idea that Irish football was about muddling along like happy-go-lucky Paddies.

"Roy has been Europe's most influential player for 10 years. If you ask me to name five all-time great players, George Best isn't in but Keane is. He's in the same mould as Danny Blanchflower, a thinker and a rebel. The people loved it when Roy talked straight. The ones who hated it were the papers and the FA of Ireland.

"Roy is a real man. He stands up to be counted. He doesn't do the glib TV-soundbite thing or showbiz bit. He wasn't a pro until 19 and wasn't a gilded youth, so he has a good perspective. He cares about his work and I think he has actually helped United over-achieve in recent years."

A real man would not, I venture, deliberately injure an opponent, then stand over him ranting as Keane did with Alf-Inge Haaland. "Of course they would," he retorts, incredulous, although it is impossible to imagine Blanchflower behaving that way. Dunphy paints a vivid picture of himself and Keane in stitches on the sofa as Jimmy Hill - the very same - led a TV panel of UK newspaper "No 1s" in condemning them.

The anti-McCarthy stance echoed his opposition to Jack Charlton when the consensus had the Englishman launching a golden age for the Irish. "Initially, Jack stopped the rot and got it organised after a fashion," he admits. "But all he really offered was Graham Taylor's long-ball game when we had players capable of so much more.

"Think of Mark Lawrenson, Paul McGrath, Packie Bonner, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan, David O'Leary and Denis Irwin. One of the best teams in Europe and he turned them into a pub side. He actually preferred McCarthy to O'Leary! The media's job should have been to say: 'This king has no clothes'. Instead, they fell in line and perpetuated the myth of Big Jack."

Dunphy's often-solitary dissent made him a target for vilification. "It was serious. I was physically attacked. When I came back from Italia 90 I was caught up in the mob and could have been killed. I had hate mail and my son was roughed up. We'd never done anything and now we'd been to the World Cup quarter-finals. Everyone became a football expert.

"In a small country, the abuse is more personal. But it made me more determined to tell it as I saw it. It was a question of keeping my nerve. People said I was being controversial for the sake of it by not supporting the regime. But I knew the players shared my opinion. They thought it was a joke, a shambles.

"It's the first principle of journalism to tell the truth. You're working for the consumers - the viewers, listeners and readers - and it's a fraud on them if you're part of the journalistic establishment."

Professionally, he is as uncompromising as ever. His radio programme, The Last Word, pulled few punches on current affairs, culture and sport. Likewise The Dunphy Show, a TV chat-show, though it failed, he concedes, in its aim of "wiping out" the long-established Late, Late Show. In print he has savaged sacred cows like Seamus Heaney and Mary Robinson.

He is no taller than before, but bitter and twisted? Now a grandfather, he declares himself "very, very happy". When he hosted Ireland's version of The Weakest Link his biggest problem was that "I like 'ordinary' people and would rather be shooting at the big guys". As we stroll through Dublin, almost everyone we pass, from motor-bike messengers to schoolgirls, grins, gives a thumbs-up or greets the so-called traitor with an "Alright Eamo?"

His next project could be an autobiography, which will doubtless demonstrate that getting stuck in takes many forms. In the meantime, how about this FA Cup final? "I fervently hope Millwall win," he says, content to see Keane on the losing end for once. "I love the way people who left that area around New Cross and the Old Kent Road to live in Sidcup or wherever go back every other Saturday. For United it's just another cup final. For Millwall people, it's history."

The stuff of dreams, indeed, although in football, as Dunphy has discovered to his discomfort, they can be bad as well as beautiful.

Eamon Dunphy life and times

1945 Born Dublin, 3 August.

1960 Joined Manchester United as apprentice.

1965 Won first of 23 Irish caps while playing for York, making his debut against Spain.

1966 Began seven-year stay at Millwall.

1976 The acclaimed Only A Game? was published.

1978 Finished his playing career with Shamrock Rovers after spells with Reading and Charlton. Began a journalistic career writing for Time Out, the Irish magazine Magill and Dublin's Sunday Tribune.

1987 Topped the book charts with his biography of U2, Unforgettable Fire.

1990 Became a hate figure after heavy criticism of Jack Charlton following Ireland's World Cup game with Egypt. Charlton labelled him a "bitter little man".

2002 Taken off air and suspended after appearing to be drunk during RTE's World Cup coverage. Caused a media storm after he ghosted Roy Keane's autobiography.

2004 Now a columnist with the Sunday Independent and the Irish Daily Star, he remains a football pundit on RTE.