A few weeks back, Damien Duff painted a somewhat poignant image of a player struggling to come to terms with retirement, recalling that one recent morning in Loughlinstown he hired out an astro-turf pitch all for himself. And even as he practised with his right foot, he found himself wondering just what the hell it was he was actually practising for?
Richard Dunne likes to play a bit of a five-a-side too but there’s scant impression that he’s missing professional football in the same way as his former international colleague, which perhaps has a lot to do with the fact that Dunne and his family — wife Helen and children Tayo (10) and Lyla (7) — now make their home in sunny Monte Carlo, where the former Ireland centre-half doesn’t have to contend with constant reminders of his footballing past.
“I got married there about 10 years ago and we’ve been going back over every summer for holidays,” he explained yesterday on a flying visit to Dublin to make his punditry debut on TV3 for last night’s Champions League game between his former club Manchester City and PSG.
“The plan was to stay there for a couple of months when I did finish. It’s just moved on and it’s become a permanent thing.”
The notion of a completely clean slate in another country appealed to the former Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa and QPR man.
“It’s just a different sort of way of life. Football is not on the telly 24 hours a day. You don’t have people asking you ‘what are you doing’ or ‘where have you been’ all the time. It was nice just to be able to relax and start afresh.
“I play football with friends every Monday, sometimes Thursdays, five a side. It’s about 15 minutes from the house. A couple of hours playing football and a couple of pints afterwards, and that’s it. I don’t have the need to continue playing. I really enjoyed it and I was really happy when I finished. I’m not crying out to go back and be part of it again. It’s over.
“I’m not glad it’s over because everyone wishes they could play forever, but I’ve done it and it’s finished and now I can just be happy and move on. I’m not chasing something that’s missing in my life.”
Asked if his career had been all he hoped it would be, Dunne’s response is a reminder that football can never be only and always the glory game.
“It’s very consuming, football,” the Dubliner reflects. “You think it’s the be-all and end-all of everything and then when you come out of it and step away, it doesn’t actually matter. Whatever people have written or said or seen on the TV, it’s always 10 times worse for the player. They take it to heart so much more than anyone could probably believe. You just have this cloud around you that everything’s terrible but when it’s over and you step away, you think, it didn’t really matter as much as it did at the time.”
Not that anyone should think he’s ungrateful for his career. “I really enjoyed it,” he stresses. “It was my dream to play football, and I was very lucky that I played it for so long.”
He’s looking forward to watching Ireland at the Euros this summer, from the comfort of his sofa, and expects the team to have a more rewarding experience in France than he and his colleagues had in Poland four years ago.
“I think the quality of the other teams was outstanding,” he says of Euro 2012. “Spain and Italy were better back then than they are now and I think our chance was probably the World Cup a couple of years beforehand — that’s when that squad of players could have performed to a better level. By the time 2012 came around, I think we were sort of a year or maybe two years past our best as footballers.
“You can try and do everything and give your all, but when players are better than you, they’re better than you and we found that out the tough way.”
Mention of the World Cup that got away, in 2010, prompts the inevitable question about how his French neighbours recall the infamous ‘Hand Of Gaul’. He smiles.
“Anyone who asks me over there, ‘Were you part of that team?’ when I say, ‘Yeah’, they go (sharp intake of breath) ‘Sorry’. I think for them they’d rather not talk about it. They know they got away with it.
“The image of me sitting down with (Thierry) Henry after the match, was more of a reaction to missing out on the finals, because I hadn’t seen the handball (at that point).
“It wasn’t until I went back into the dressing room that I saw it. We probably didn’t realise it then but we found out two years later that it was our best chance as a team to make an impression on a tournament. So when you look back now, it was a big disappointment.”
Looking ahead to how Ireland might fare this summer, he says: “It’s a younger squad going into the tournament and they have grown as the group stages went on, so the tournament itself is coming at the right time for Ireland. If you look at the results last month, our opponents aren’t shaping up too good, so we can take heart from that, and the added bonus is that three teams will get out. One win will do it for us and I don’t think we have anyone to fear.”
Dunne has no doubt but that his old comrade Robbie Keane will have a role to play.
“He has to be part of the squad, he’s Ireland’s Ibrahimovic,” he says.
“He’s the person who, if things are not going well, everyone will look to him to be the one to score. He is the person who has scored in World Cups for Ireland, scored important goals all through his career. He’s a very valuable part of the team and if he’s not in the team he’s one character you can rely on to be ready when he’s called upon.”
And while Dunne doesn’t see a future for himself in football as a coach or manager (“I enjoy spending time with my kids and family and if you go down coaching and managing, it’s a much longer day”), he is certain that Keane has the right stuff to go on and one day manage the Irish team.
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “With all the caps he’s got, and the experience and clubs he’s played at, eventually — once he’s qualified, done his badges and some sort of apprenticeship at a club — he’ll definitely be an Ireland manager.”
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