Tony Dunne: Manchester United's unsung hero revered by his peers

Tony Dunne, who has died at the age of 78, will forever be inextricably linked with what many still regard as the greatest night in the history of Manchester United.
Tony Dunne: Manchester United's unsung hero revered by his peers
Tony Dunne, pictured here at Old Trafford in 1970, won the European Cup, two league titles, and an FA Cup with Manchester United.
Tony Dunne, pictured here at Old Trafford in 1970, won the European Cup, two league titles, and an FA Cup with Manchester United.

Tony Dunne, who has died at the age of 78, will forever be inextricably linked with what many still regard as the greatest night in the history of Manchester United.

Under Alex Ferguson, the club might have gone on to enjoy serial success of an unprecedented kind, but by beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley on May 29, 1968, United made history by becoming the first English team to lift the European Cup, an achievement rendered all the more meaningful for everyone associated with the club because it meant manager Matt Busby had finally realised a dream which seemed to have perished, along with so many lives, in the Munich disaster.

As a young kid watching the drama unfold on television that night, I would naturally have been enthralled by the exploits of the goalscorers, Bobby Charlton, twice, George Best, and Brian Kidd. Goalkeeper Alex Stepney would also have loomed large in my consciousness for saving a Eusebio blockbuster.

But I also took a quiet pleasure in knowing that there were two Republic of Ireland players on the pitch: Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne. That the latter was a Dubliner to boot, a player who’d joined United from Shelbourne – just after he’d won the FAI Cup with the Tolka Park side in 1960 - helped bring the impossible glamour of it all that bit closer to home.

More knowledgeable students of the game at that time would have recognised something more important – that left-back Dunne played the proverbial blinder at Wembley, both in helping to blunt Benfica’s feared attack and, with his pace, decisive tackling, and intelligent use of the ball, ensuring that United’s most potent creative talents could ultimately cut loose in swaggering style as they scored three times in extra time.

But, to borrow the title of Eamon Dunphy’s book on Busby, it felt to Tony Dunne like a strange kind of glory when the final whistle blew that night. In a 2004 interview with Colm Keane for his book Ireland’s Soccer Top 20, Dunne recalled that, in a state combining exhaustion and relief but also imbued with a deep personal melancholy, he found it hard to share in the celebrations. Inside, he said, he felt there was something dragging him down.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he told the author, “I was over the moon we’d won and I’d achieved something and we’d broken the barrier for Matt Busby. The team that was killed in the crash I still believe today would have won the European Cup. We followed on, we won it, and I was delighted because we had succeeded for the fellows that had been killed in the crash.

“I was over the moon but I was over the moon in a low-key way. And my thoughts at the time were my own thoughts. I felt it was more for something else; it was more for history than for me. Yet it was a lovely time, a lovely time in history, and it gave me everything in life.”

It’s no surprise that Tony Dunne features in a top 20 of Ireland’s best players. Only recently, John Giles went further by including the stocky, dark-haired full-back in both his all-time greatest Ireland and Manchester United teams, with Denis Irwin receiving the same accolade on the other side of the defence.

“Tony was very similar to Denis Irwin because Tony played in a star-studded team,” Giles told Off The Ball.

Charlton, Best, and Law got the headlines every week because they were brilliant players. Tony hardly ever got a mention. But I think Tony was the best left-back in what was then the First Division for about ten seasons.

“Tony had the temperament that if Best or Law or Charlton is there, I’ll give it to them. He wasn’t seeking publicity but you must remember as well, Tony won a Cup medal (in 1963 in the same team as Giles) and two championship medals with Manchester United, as well as the European Cup. So he got a fair few honours in his time at Manchester United. But he was an unsung hero.”

Glowing confirmation of Dunne’s standing among his peers can be found in Bobby Charlton’s assessment of his attributes.

“Tony Dunne was possibly the quickest defender I ever saw,” he once said. “His marking ability was brilliant, and I recall telling a journalist who had commented on Tony's great form around the time we won the European Cup, 'Well, you know he's been the best left-back in Europe for years. He goes like lightning.'

“He did have a kind of genius. He read an opponent so well that, with his speed, he could go out against any winger on earth confident of putting him in his pocket.”

Reds on both sides of the Irish Sea have been mourning the passing of Tony Dunne; Shels and United joined in sadness and expressions of admiration for all that he gave their clubs. Bolton Wanderers - the club he joined after the disappointment of being let go by Tommy Docherty at Old Trafford - and where he later had a spell as assistant manager, have also been among the many in the game paying tribute.

And for a generation of Irish football fans, Tony Dunne will be remembered for his 33 appearances in the green shirt and, though the momentous successes of later years unfortunately eluded those teams, as a reliably class act for his country from his first cap in 1962 to his last in 1975.

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