Jason Burt: Dunne misbehavin': born-again defender thrives on his lifeline

'It's been hard work, yes, to put everything right. Getting Player of the Year was the best thing for me'
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The Independent Football

Richard Dunne's past tribulations are well-documented. All too well-documented. Late for training and hung-over, he was regarded as one of the main characters in a drinking culture that affected the club and that was met head-on by the then manager, Kevin Keegan, who threatened to terminate his contract.

Keegan offered a lifeline as well, and it's one that Dunne wholeheartedly grasped. "It's been hard work, yes, to put everything right that was wrong," the defender, 26 last week, acknowledges. "It's been rewarding too, though. Getting Player of the Year last season was the best thing for me." It sealed his rehabilitation, and was a sign that he was finally fulfilling his rich potential. To win that award, it should not be forgotten that Dunne beat off the challenge of Shaun Wright-Phillips.

The Dubliner has continued this season in similar vein, even if the start of it was delayed, for him, after he damaged his foot by kicking a door in frustration following that infamous escapade in Thailand involving his City team-mate Joey Barton. Dunne, it must be stressed, was the peacemaker, the restraint, the innocent party. It was just his bad luck he got involved.

"I didn't feel I did anything special," he says, while stating that Barton has accepted his responsibilities. "He's taken on board everything that's happened," Dunne says. Of his part in it he adds: "I just reacted. I'm that bit older now, wiser, more mature. I'm more willing to take responsibility."

That has been clear on the pitch as well, especially with City's promising start to the season. "Our aim is to get into Europe," Dunne says. "Based on the last four or five seasons that might mean only picking up one more win or keeping one clean sheet." For him, a successful season means "City not conceding as many goals".

A change of manager, with Stuart Pearce replacing Keegan part-way through last season, has also seen a shift. "Under the last manager the ambition was there but I don't think the belief was there among the players. When Stuart Pearce says it, though, a lot of people tend to believe him. He puts the belief into players, he's a winner. No one is fitter than us, no one is stronger than us. People are going to have to play really well to beat us."

Unfortunately, that belief has been severely tested of late. Three defeats in a row have been a "kick in the teeth", and a "reality check". Dunne adds: "We weren't getting carried away with ourselves, but I suppose we had just started to think we might be a top-six team."

Pearce has remained calm - except during half-time in last week's loss to Newcastle United. "That [first half] was pretty bad, and he let us know," Dunne says. "[It] was the first time he's really lost it. He really let us have it."

Usually, Dunne says, Pearce is calm. "He was probably more terrifying as a player," he adds of his former defensive team-mate. "He thinks a lot about the game, and he listens to people around him." He has also tutored Dunne, and it helps that "defending is his specialist subject".

The successful execution of that art is what helped Dunne's former club, and City's opponents today, Everton into fourth place last season. "Last year they weren't letting in any goals, they were taking the lead and hanging on," he says. "Now they are going behind and not managing to score either. They've started off really badly. They seem to have one good season then a bad one."

That lack of consistency used to affect Dunne too. It was what helped precipitate his departure from Goodison Park in the first place, where he also failed to see eye-to-eye with Walter Smith. City, then under Joe Royle, who had first signed Dunne for Everton from Irish club Home Farm as a 15-year-old, snapped him up for £3m.

Still, Everton's achievements last season are an encouragement. "Everyone is wondering if they can't do what Everton did," he says, citing Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur in the same bracket as City.

"It was sheer hard work that got Everton into fourth last season. We've made that our minimum requirement every week and hopefully we can add to that with goals and good football."

Those precious qualities have been lacking of late for the Republic of Ireland, and Dunne has two World Cup qualifiers coming up. Away to Cyprus and home to Switzerland to end a frustrating campaign - and both must be won. He is, nevertheless, confident. "At the start we looked at the fixtures and fancied ourselves to win those two games. It's well within our capabilities," says Dunne, who earned his first competitive start in three years in last month's loss to France; he is expected to retain his place.

If Ireland are to do it they will have to without the injured Roy Keane. "We have to prove we are not just a one-man team," adds Dunne, who also acknowledges that, in any case, the mantle has probably already passed to Damien Duff. "A lot of people look at him now as the main one. It's a more rounded team now, with more ability."

Ireland certainly need to step up their performances, especially amid accusations of negative tactics. "You might get that impression looking at the games and reading the reports," Dunne says. "But not once during the campaign have we set out at training to go and get a draw somewhere. We've tried to protect leads and in some games that's backfired [the two draws against Israel]."

This timea draw won't be enough. Having been taken to the last World Cup, only to be an unused substitute (some, such as Keegan, claim that frustrating experience may have contributed to him going off the rails in the first place), Dunne is determined to grasp the opportunity.