David Dunn dares to dream again

Injury has blighted the midfielder's time at Birmingham, but he tells Phil Shaw that beating West Bromwich in today's relegation derby can start a march back to the England fold
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The boxer Matthew Macklin faces the biggest bout of his career next week when he steps into the ring at Madison Square Garden. One of his staunchest supporters and friends would love to be there to cheer the Anglo-Irish middleweight as he makes the giant leap from the Midlands to Manhattan, but David Dunn also has a fight on his hands.

More than one, in fact. On a personal level, the once-capped England midfielder is striving to re-establish himself after a traumatic 12 months which culminated in a unique spinal-fusion operation aimed at curing the hamstring problems that have dogged him for years.

There is also a collective imperative as Dunn's club, 18th-placed Birmingham City, slug it out with a West Bromwich Albion team lying one rung above them at noon today in a match with a major bearing on which of the neighbours avoids relegation from the Premiership.

"Getting beaten is a no-no," Dunn says, chuckling as he warms to the boxing imagery being bandied about by the press corps. "We would be on the ropes if that happened. We would probably get a five count."

Dunn, 26, became Birmingham's record buy when Steve Bruce paid his hometown club, Blackburn Rovers, £5.5m in 2003. A year earlier, the former England Under-21 captain had been on standby to join Sven Goran Eriksson's squad at the World Cup in Japan and Korea. He was "confident" - a word never far from his lips, though not be confused with "arrogant" - he would have graduated to the England team in time for this year's finals. It was not to be, but after what he has endured in the interim, even the prospect of a dogfight against Albion has him purring.

"I'm sure that people would prefer us not to be in the position we're in, but I can't wait to play my part in keeping us up," Dunn says with obvious relish. "We are striving for that 17th place and this game is the old cliché - a six-pointer. I've never played in one quite like it. It won't decide anything, but if we were to get out of the bottom three it would be a great boost for us. We've been down there so long.

"I'm just looking to put in some good performances between now and the end of the season, and hopefully for a change of luck this year. It was certainly good to put 2005 behind me. My grandma died, and I had been really close to her. I also split up with Sammy [Winward, Emmerdale actress and mother of his daughter]. And I had my back operation. Put those three things in anyone's life and they would find it difficult."

There were times when his natural ebullience gave way to gloom. Even watching his colleagues play was an ordeal - "I prefer to watch my 13-year-old cousin turn out for his Sunday team in the parks in Blackburn" - but Dunn believes his difficulties have fostered a resilient streak.

"I certainly changed during the time I was out. I think a lot more now than I used to. I'm stronger mentally than I was. It was frustrating for me, and presumably for the manager. But even at my lowest ebb - when I was sat in bed after the surgery - I knew there were a lot of people worse off than me. I'm not struggling financially and I've got a big, close family behind me. There are a lot of people that don't have any of that.

"Before the operation I used to get much more down than I do now. I think that lying there for eight weeks taught me a few lessons and helped to put things into perspective. It's not the end of the world, is it?"

It may feel like it should Birmingham's four-season stay in the top flight come to an end in May, and indeed if they were to allow Albion to open up a six-point advantage on them today. But the new, more philosophical Dunn, who experienced relegation with Blackburn as a teenager in 1999, is not letting such negative thoughts play on his mind.

"It has looked like it will be between us and West Brom for a couple of weeks now. When Middlesbrough beat Chelsea, that basically left the four teams down there at the bottom. Psychologically, it would be terrible if we lost, but having said that, football throws surprises at you. If we did get beaten, who is to say we can't go and get positive results against Chelsea and Manchester United? Sometimes it happens that way.

"The difference I sense between the mood here and what it was like at Blackburn when we went down is that everyone is more together at Birmingham. They really do want us to get out of this."

The value Dunn places on camaraderie and unity is all the more interesting in that his other sporting passion is very much a lone pursuit. "There's no one that can let you down in the ring except yourself," he muses, before identifying the common ground between football and boxing. "If you can look yourself in the mirror every day and say, 'I'm doing the best I can, personally and professionally', I feel you can't do anything more."

The sight of his first club thriving in the upper reaches of the Premiership once more cuts a vivid contrast with Birmingham's predicament. The manager with whom he fell out at Blackburn, Graeme Souness, is no longer there. The betrayal he felt after finding out that the Scot had announced on television that he was putting Dunn on the transfer list has long since been overtaken by other crises and changes in his life. Are there moments when he regrets not having stayed at Ewood Park?

"At the time I left, it was the right thing to do," insists Dunn. "Everybody knows I'll always be a Blackburn fan, and I'm pleased that they are doing well under Mark Hughes. But it doesn't mean I've always got to play my football for the club. I'm glad I came to Birmingham."

Even so, he cannot have expected that he would near the end of his third campaign with fewer than a season's worth of starting roles. The world's neuro-spinal experts have pored over the details of Dunn's revolutionary operation, but the bottom line is that he is feeling "sharp" again.

"My basic fitness is good. We had some tests at the club the other day and they showed I was fine. When I was injured I lost about 6kg. I'm around my fighting weight now. My body fat is between eight and nine per cent, which is pretty good. But I've got big legs and a big backside, so I probably look fatter in my kit than I actually am!

"After the tests we were told that we needed to drink more water. I mentioned it to Matthew [Macklin] and he was saying he drinks six litres a day. I'm going to try to get up to that level myself.

"It's just a matter of my match-fitness now. I played for an hour at Middlesbrough last Saturday and an hour in the reserves before that. I'm confident I can go out and do 90 now. There's nothing to say I won't pull my hamstring again. If there were, everyone would have the operation. But I'm feeling good and I want to repay the club's faith in me. I feel that I owe them a lot because they have certainly stuck by me.

"I'm pretty muscular and explosive. Maybe I shouldn't play at such a high tempo all the time and take my foot off the gas. But it's because of my eagerness to get the ball; my desire to win. I'm doing special fitness work on Mondays and Tuesdays now. I don't get a kick in training on those days. I keep that for Thursdays and Fridays and feel better for it. No doubt I'll be blowing against West Brom after saying that."

When Dunn observes that Birmingham's "terrible luck" with injuries has hindered their attempts to punch their weight, it is hard to disagree. The "chopping and changing" into which Bruce has been forced has scarcely been conducive to continuity. However, Dunn sees his own return, allied to Mikael Forssell's renewed sharpness and the impact made by D J Campbell, as potentially decisive factors over the coming fixtures, which include an FA Cup quarter-final at home to Liverpool.

At his best, he brings to Birmingham's armoury elements of the panache that was once the preserve of Paul Gascoigne and the ability, epitomised by Paul Scholes, to cause havoc by "floating" between midfield and the front. "I'd love that free role," Dunn reflects, "but I think we're better off as a team playing with two banks of four. We need to grind out results, rather than looking pretty. I'll play wherever the manager wants."

The same would apply, of course, to whoever succeeds Eriksson at the England helm. Dunn, who played his only full international as a substitute against Portugal in 2003, is not even close for this summer. "In the back of my mind, I probably did look ahead then to the 2006 World Cup. I don't want to be a one-cap wonder."

Acknowledging that Joe Cole is probably the player he would have to dislodge, he adds: "I've got some goals I'm keeping to myself, but I do want to get back in the England set-up. If I stay fit and work harder than ever, maybe I can push my way back in over the next year or two.

"Fitness-wise, I don't think I'll be really bang-on until next season. I missed pre-season and I've had a few injuries. But I think next season will be a big one for me."

And for Birmingham City? "If we get through this season, I think we can surprise a few people next time." The top half of the Premiership? "I don't know about that. Let's just get through this season first."

Not exactly fighting talk, but if anyone knows the importance of being able to walk before you can run - literally - it is David Dunn.