Richard, iron heart of a reinforced City

Keegan's warning of the last-chance saloon is heeded by a defender determined to atone
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The Independent Online

Never let it be said that Manchester City are predictable in anything except their unpredictability. Who, other than the three promoted clubs, would have been the least likely Premiership side to return from Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford this season with two clean sheets, throwing in an unlucky 1-1 draw at Highbury for good measure? Who would have the best defensive record other than Chelsea and Manchester United - Arsenal included? Surely not the Kevin Keegan team who within the space of a month earlier in the season lost 4-3 to Newcastle and beat Barnsley 7-1? That's the City and the Keegan that we know and love.

Never let it be said that Manchester City are predictable in anything except their unpredictability. Who, other than the three promoted clubs, would have been the least likely Premiership side to return from Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford this season with two clean sheets, throwing in an unlucky 1-1 draw at Highbury for good measure? Who would have the best defensive record other than Chelsea and Manchester United - Arsenal included? Surely not the Kevin Keegan team who within the space of a month earlier in the season lost 4-3 to Newcastle and beat Barnsley 7-1? That's the City and the Keegan that we know and love.

So there was only one question for the manager in the buildup today's Manchester derby: where did it all go wrong, Kevin? Accused occasionally of having lost his sense of humour, he had the good grace to smile, and the modesty to admit, "I really can't answer that", before making a stab at doing so.

"I think that triangle of [centre-backs] Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin and [goalkeeper] David James is as good as anything in the Premiership. And in Danny Mills and Ben Thatcher we found people last summer who enjoy defending. We still want to beat teams and still want to entertain, but we're built on a really good foundation."

Even more surprisingly, the rock at the centre of this new solidity has been Dunne, rivalling Shaun Wright-Phillips all season as City's outstanding performer. Previously a shambling figure whose motto appeared to be the old advertising slogan "Guinness gives you strength", the Dubliner was forced after one big night out to endure a final warning in his own home from the manager that the place he was now drinking in was the last-chance saloon.

"It needed him to take a reality check himself," Keegan says. "I know he hates me talking about it, he'd sooner forget it, and he's right, it's history. We're about to agree a new contract with him because he deserves it. In the past, he probably didn't deserve the contract he had. Everton sold him here for a lot of money, three-and-a-half-million quid, and he probably wasted a couple of years. But he's said in his own words he was wrong and I think he's seen the light.

"I went round to his flat and told him in front of his girlfriend that it had gone beyond idle threats, he would get the sack if it happened again. But he came back, got his weight down, and what you see now is just the start of what he could be. He's got a hell of a lot to give to this club."

Dunne declines all invitations to revisit his troubled past, but sounds excited by the present and future. Brought up, like his team-mates Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, on the excitement of Merseyside derby days, he feels the intensity of games like this afternoon's as strongly as any Mancunian. "To the crowd, this derby is like six points. We haven't lost the last three games at home against United and we can make sure they don't beat us all season. City fans would go mad if we ended their championship hopes. Getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Oldham was a blow to the fans, our season being relatively over by January, but we can make up for that.

"The fans have been looking forward to this since then because this is our one big game left. You try and treat it as another game, but when you get on to that pitch and their names are getting read out and you can hardly hear them because the crowd are booing, you realise how big it is. And that really gets you going."

At Chelsea last Sunday Dunne was excellent again in a goalless draw, and would have been many people's choice as man of the match if David James had not pulled off his stupendous save from Frank Lampard right at the death. Dunne admits their record has been contrary against the top and bottom sides this season: "We have done well against the big teams and not so well against the lesser teams, and it has been our inconsistency that has cost us. We were scoring goals for fun, but also letting them in, but this season we have tightened up the defence. The way that we played against Chelsea away from home was perfect. Now we are going to have three attackers on the pitch and hopefully we can do something with the ball."

That, in part, will be down to Wright-Phillips, a little man for the big occasion - he was devastating in the home win over United last season - which made his fluffing of lines and shots against Holland in midweek all the more perplexing. Not that Keegan, a huge admirer, thinks there will be any hangover. "He just comes out every game and gives it 100 per cent. There's no doubt he'll play loads of times for England. If people judged you on your first [full] game, I'd never have played for England again. He's just about the best player in this country at the moment, and probably the most outstanding talent since [Wayne] Rooney." Aah, Rooney, another young Englishman on whom the critical spotlight will shine brightly this afternoon.

Not least to illuminate his often impetuous temperament in a derby that has seen Gary Neville and Alan Smith sent off recently. Smith, who misses today's game, was dismissed in the Old Trafford meeting in November, encouraging City to cling on for a backs-to-the-wall draw. Of 14 League games since then United have won 12 and drawn two, without, to their intense frustration, making inroads into Chelsea's lead at the top.

Sir Alex Ferguson continues to insist the London side will encounter a blip, citing the absence of Arjen Robben - the player he thought was joining United a year ago - and the imminent resumption of Champions' League football. He was at it again on Friday: "We've got to win our games and hope Chelsea stumble. I think everyone knows they're not playing as well. They've lost an important player in Robben and they're coming into a period where games are difficult."

The perception is that matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool matter more to United these days than today's local set-to. It is not an attitude they can afford to walk into the City of Manchester stadium with, and Ferguson is canny enough to acknowledge that: "This derby is still massive, punters going into their offices and works on Monday morning hoping their team has done the business. The rivalry is huge. Form is not always the answer, but you're happy if you're going into the game in good form."

It is just as well that United are, against Keegan's unexpected new mean machine.

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